As a minor league player, when you lead your team with a .303 batting average, .405 on base percentage, 27 doubles, and 66 walks, plus finish runner-up in hits, runs, RBI, and total bases, you generally expect to advance to the next level the following season. That didn't happen with first baseman Bryan Byrne, as Joshua Whitesell has an even better season at Triple-A ahead of Byrne and just missed making the big league squad out of spring training.
But this week, Tony Clark hit the disabled list and the slumping Chad Tracy got benched, allowing both Whitesell and Byrne to get the promotions they deserved. Byrne stayed positive at the start of the year despite repeating at a level for which he was clearly too advanced.
"It wasn't frustrating," Byrne insisted after joining the Aces in Sacramento on Thursday. "Double-A is a good spot to be. I understood the situation with Josh [Whitesell], and that there was a good chance of me going back to Mobile."
"I enjoy the coaching staff there a lot, with Turner Ward as the hitting coach and manager [Hector] de la Cruz. So it wasn't a bad thing. It gave me a chance to work on some things, play hard, and hope to get up here as soon as I could."
Byrne made the decision an easy one by beginning the year hitting .346 with a .485 on-base percentage through his first 16 games. He went 1-for-16 after that, but Byrne has such a history of consistency that the organization had no reason to be worried about that mini-slump. Byrne has now gone seventeen consecutive full months hitting .260 or better, dating back to August of 2005. So even though he is now 1-for-his-last-24, you can bet that he will find a way to rebound soon.
"I had a real good first two or three series, and then the last series was kind of a struggle," admitted Byrne. "I might have tried to do too much because for those first 15 games I felt so good, and it might have gotten me into trouble. You try to take those games a day at a time. As far as baseball, you're going to go good, you're going to go bad. You've just got to learn how to deal with those [bad] times."
Although the bad times have been few and far between, Byrne has usually turned to the same person to help him cope. Byrne played for manager Hector de la Cruz in his rookie season with the Osprey in 2005, then with Visalia in 2007 and finally in Mobile the past two seasons. Now he will be working with Brett Butler, which won't be totally unfamiliar, since Butler worked as the organization's baserunning coordinator in 2008.
"I did play with Hector for almost four seasons," said Byrne. "Brett Butler is a great guy, and he's been around our system, as a coordinator and now [again] as a manager. I look forward to playing for him and learning some new things under his system."
Byrne continued to describe how de la Cruz taught him how to prepare for each game and to play the game hard every day.
"He's good at motivating players. He's a fun guy to play for, but the big thing with him was just playing the game the right way, playing it hard, and getting your work, extra work. I enjoyed those three-plus years playing for him."
2007 Oaks made the playoffs under de la Cruz, and Byrne clearly enjoyed that run, as he batted .386 that postseason. Byrne also sees similar potential for the 2009 BayBears.
"We had a bunch of guys come back, so I think the experience was there," Byrne began. "The guys they have at Mobile are a bunch of good individuals as far as personality. It was just a good team. Well-balanced, well put together: guys one to nine in the lineup are guys who aren't trying to do too much. They're guys who knew their roles. I think when as a team you know your strengths and weaknesses, you're going to succeed. A good pitching staff there, obviously, and a great bullpen. They have a very good team there and they should have a great season."
Byrne figures to have a great season himself at Reno. Byrne has hit .286 or higher with an OBP of .389 or higher each of his three years at full-season levels. He has never posted a fielding percentage below .989 in any season. If Byrne has one weakness, it is that he has hit only 37 home runs in over 1,600 career at-bats in an era that expects first baseman to hit for power.
"It's just the way the game is now. Corner position guys are guys that are going to hit home runs," explained Byrne. "In the big leagues, most guys are hitting 25-30 home runs a year. I think that's something I can do eventually, in time, learning the pitches I can deal with and certain swing stuff. But I've always been a doubles guy, a getting-on-base guy, so I really haven't tried to change too much, trying to stay within myself and believing that the more I play those homers are going to come. Hopefully, they come sooner rather than later."
The question is, how soon will Byrne get his chance in the big leagues? Clark and Tracy are only signed through the end of this season, but the organization expects Josh Whitesell to produce as the team's everyday first baseman for years to come. Byrne was a third baseman in college, and played six flawless games there last year. Could he begin to see more time at the hot corner or even in the outfield to increase his odds of playing at the major league level?
"They talk about it every year," replied Byrne. "I've taken some practice at third in Mobile and in spring training, but now I'm not really sure what direction they're going to go in. I'm willing to try anything I can, obviously, to move up in the system, even if I have to jump into the outfield. I've tried third before, I played a little bit last year. I'm trying to get as many reps as I can [at first base] and in other spots, and if that helps me move up in the system, then that's a good thing."
The Diamondbacks risk exposing Byrne to the Rule 5 draft this winter if they do not place him on their 40-man roster. So if he performs Reno the way he has at every other level, that will essentially force the D-backs to protect him. Once on the 40-man, a player can find himself in the big leagues at a moment's notice.
But fist things first. Byrne needs to work his way out of this little slump and prove that he can hit Triple-A pitching.
"It's going to be exciting to take this step, and I'm looking forward to the challenge."
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