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Byrd to fill Cubs' hole in center field

Byrd to fill Cubs' hole in center field

CHICAGO -- For the second straight offseason, the Cubs have signed an outfielder from the Texas Rangers, but this should be a better fit.

On Thursday, the Cubs inked free agent Marlon Byrd to a three-year, $15 million contract to fill their gap in center field. The deal is backloaded so Byrd will be paid $3 million in 2010, $5.5 million in 2011 and $6.5 million in 2012.

"When I knew I had the opportunity to become a Cub, I was really hoping this would be my landing ground," Byrd said.

Byrd, 32, batted .283 last season with the Texas Rangers and set personal highs with 20 homers and 89 RBIs. He'll be reunited with hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo, who signed this offseason with the Cubs. Jaramillo helped sell Byrd to the Cubs.

"We knew he was a good guy," general manager Jim Hendry said of Byrd, about whom the Cubs inquired prior to the 2008 season. "He plays very hard and fans are going to like that. He comes to play every day, doesn't want days off and gives you 110 [percent]. When Rudy told us about the other things he brought to the table, it enhances his reputation even further."

That sounds the opposite of Milton Bradley, the other Rangers outfielder whom the Cubs signed to a three-year deal prior to the 2009 season. Kosuke Fukudome had switched from right to center to make room for Bradley, but he will go back to right field now that Bradley has been traded to the Seattle Mariners after a tumultuous year in Chicago, which ended with a 15-game suspension.

"I haven't talked to [Bradley] as far as baseball," Byrd said of his former teammate. "He said it was tough. We tried to go over things as far as what was going on with his swing. The big thing about me and Milton is we have a relationship off the field. I love Milton Bradley. I'm a little biased when it comes to him. I think he's a great guy. I'm going to talk to him today about coming here. I'm sure he's happy to start in another place, get a fresh start and try to put things in the past."

The Cubs are happy to move on.

"Since the day we hired Rudy, he came to the [organizational] meetings and was passionate about his belief in Marlon and that he would be the right guy," Hendry said. "[Jaramillo told us] don't worry about right-handed or left-handed and that his defense had been underrated in the past. Rudy had a strong influence on us and the way we thought."

With the addition of Byrd, the Cubs are very right-handed, but Hendry pointed out that's how the lineup was in 2007, when the team won 97 games and the National League Central.

The outfield options the Cubs have from the left include Sam Fuld and Micah Hoffpauir. Hendry mentioned that Jeff Baker also could play some outfield. Signing Byrd most likely means free agent Reed Johnson, a right-handed hitter, will not return.

Byrd has benefited from playing in Texas and has posted a .522 slugging percentage at home compared to .414 on the road in the last three seasons. In 2009, he batted .282 at home with a .538 slugging percentage, compared to .285 on the road with a .419 slugging percentage.

He said he simply felt more relaxed at home, being around his family, and that his numbers were not a product of the ballpark.

"The park situation can be overrated at times," Hendry said. "I think a lot of people felt that way when Mark DeRosa came out of Texas. You've got the best hitting coach in baseball who believes it finally clicked with Marlon in the last year or two and that it will continue over the next three, four years. That's what we went by in the end is Rudy's belief that the player finally got it and it clicked."

What did Jaramillo do to get Byrd on the right track?

"Rudy teaches five steps," Byrd said, "and going over the five steps, I was missing about four of them. He basically implemented the four and made me start trusting in myself and believing in myself."

Byrd was drawing interest from other teams, and some reports listed the Braves, Angels, Yankees, Mariners, Mets and Giants as possible suitors. He wanted to stay in Texas, but the Rangers did not offer a multi-year deal.

Finding a center fielder has been an issue for the Cubs. Byrd will be the sixth different Opening Day starter in the last six years.

As far as defense goes, Byrd credited former Cubs outfielder Gary Varsho with teaching him the basics and moving him to center. Gold Glover Gary Pettis also worked with Byrd as did Andruw Jones, who helped as far as reading a hitter's swings.

"Being out there every single day really helped," Byrd said.

Hendry still has some tweaks to make, including finding an experienced right-handed reliever and some backup help for the bench.

Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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