Last year at this time, Marlon Byrd was playing for Culiacan in the Mexican Pacific League. The previous season, he had been traded by the Cubs, released by the Red Sox and suspended 50 games by Major League Baseball for testing positive for Tamoxifen, a substance that increases testosterone production.
Byrd wondered if his career was over after batting a combined .210 with one homer and nine RBIs in the bigs.
It wasn't. Last January, the Mets agreed to let Byrd come to Port St. Lucie, Fla., as a non-roster invitee. He went on to have a career year. Byrd hit 24 homers, drove in 88 runs and had an .847 OPS between New York and Pittsburgh (he was traded to the Pirates in August). And he cashed that in this week by signing a two-year, $16 million contract with the Phillies that includes an $8 million option for 2016 that vests with 1,110 at-bats over the first two seasons, including at least 550 in '14, or 600 in '15.
"I wasn't sure if I was going to get any offers last year," Byrd said. "It was a combination of the suspension plus [lack of production]. I didn't have the offensive numbers and didn't really show anybody anything with the way I played. So to be in this position, I never would have thought that. A year ago, I was trying to check out how to get back into baseball."
Byrd is aware that many will assume that his big year was chemically enhanced, although he has consistently maintained that he mistakenly used a medication for the recurrence of a condition that had previously required surgery. The reason he performed so well, Byrd said by phone Wednesday, was as simple as rediscovering his swing.
"My mechanics. I was completely gone with my hitting mechanics. It seemed like from '07 to 2011, I got better and better every year," he said. "And in 2012, it just didn't click at all. I don't know the reason why. I knew what I wanted to do at the plate, but I just couldn't fix it."
After his suspension, Byrd spent the rest of the summer working with Doug Latta at The Ballyard in Canoga Park, Calif. Somewhere along the way, he got his groove back. Which is why Byrd is confident 2013 wasn't a fluke.
"Definitely," he said. "I wouldn't call myself a late bloomer, but at 35 going on 36 years of age, I had the best year in my career for a reason -- because I had the best swing in my career. I hadn't swung like this since 2001. That was the year I had John Kruk as my hitting coach in [Double-A] Reading. I had the same exact swing in 2001 that I had last year. Now I know it, and it's a lot easier for me to repeat it."
That season in Reading, Byrd batted .316 with 28 homers, 89 RBIs and a .941 OPS, firmly fixing himself on the organization's radar. But even though he finished fourth in the National League Rookie of the Year Award voting in 2003, Byrd never established himself in Philadelphia. Two years later, he was traded to the Nationals for Endy Chavez.
Byrd comes back to Philadelphia, he said, older but wiser.
"First off, my baseball IQ isn't even close to where it was when I was still with the Phillies," Byrd said. "I was still trying to learn to play at the big league level. I had the talent, but as far as the knowledge, as far as knowing what the pitchers were trying to do to me, [I did not].
"The physical, I've gotten stronger every single year in my career. I stay in shape. I'm not a guy you can tell when you see me play how old I am. I know how to take care of my body a lot better, and I think the physical goes into the mental, too."
The signing came early in the offseason. Byrd was surprised, but pleased, that everything came together so quickly.
"I wasn't sure what was going to happen this offseason," he said. "The last couple years, it seemed like things would happen during the Winter Meetings [in December]. The first time I was a free agent, I didn't get anything until right after the Winter Meetings. So for it to get done quickly was [general manager] Ruben [Amaro Jr.] showing me he wanted me. And when he put the offer on the table, there was no doubt where I wanted to be."
Just a year after wondering whether he'd ever play in the Major Leagues again, Byrd may be back where he started. But he's so far beyond where he was.
Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com.