Billy Butler and the Royals’ Off-Season Plan

Apparently some people do not respect the sanctity of World Series Week:

Move over, Scott Boras and A-Rod.

Jokes aside, the Royals’ reported willingness to see what they can get from Billy Butler is, on the surface, not all that interesting. A team seeing what sort of value they can get from their assets simply makes sense. “Team X should trade Player Y if they can get more surplus value back” is a truism. If the Royals can get more value back for Butler than he is worth, then, yes, they should probably trade him. Of course, on the other side of things, teams should only trade for Butler (or any other player) if they do not have to give up too much. These sorts of unbalanced trades are not really worth discussing in the abstract. What might be more interesting is trying and figure out why the team would want to move Butler given their other needs.

Butler is a designated hitter, and that label is appropriate not just because of his rather unsightly skills at first base, but because of his poor performance on the basepaths: five runs below average in 2013 was actually his best performance on the bases since 2008. Butler can hit, though. He may not have lived up to the expectations of some thus far in his career, and given that he will be 28 in 2014 the time for a big jump in performance is passing him by. His 2013 performance was particularly disappointing for Royals fans (and fantasy owners) since he hit just 15 home runs and had a .124 ISO after he had career bests in those categories (19 and .197, respectively) in 2012. His 116 wRC+ in 2013 was his lowest since 2008.

Nonetheless, we also know that one year of observed performance is not nearly sufficient for determining a player’s true talent. Butler’s power probably will not live up to his 2012 performance again, but he also improved his on-base percentage. This is not the place to get into every aspect of Butler’s offensive game. Steamer does the appropriate age adjustments, regression, and the rest for us, so let’s keep it simple and go with that projection for Butler’s 2014: .299/.376/.476, 132 wRC+, 2.6 WAR. That is no superstar performance, but two to three wins makes for an above-average player. Butler is owed $8 million for 2014 with a 2015 club option for $12.5 million. That does not project to be a total steal, but one does not have to see the Tim Lincecum contract as market value to see Butler as having a fair bit of surplus value.

What teams have room at DH or might be willing to play Butler at first is a fun discussion, but not one I want to pursue here. Rather, why would the Royals want to consider moving him? After all, despite his struggles (relatively speaking) in 2013, Butler still projects as the team’s best hitter, and the Royals offense was pretty horrible in 2013. I do not have any inside information, rather I simply want to consider some possibilities given the Royals’ situation.

One obvious possibility is that Kansas City does not expect Butler to be as good as the projection above. This also might be true of other teams. This really does not get us anywhere — obvious Steamer might be too optimistic (or not), but if the Royals do not value Butler all that much, the same might be true of other teams. If the idea is that the Royals are thinking that other teams might overvalue Butler and give up more than he is worth, well, that does seem like a good plan, but that goes into the truism pile of uninteresting possibilities.

Another more interesting angle has the Royals wanting to trade Butler to free up salary. If the idea is to keep spending down, then that would indicate the team is no longer in “win now” mode, which would not make much sense just a year after the James Shields-Wil Myers trade (or as some see it, the Elliot Johnson-Patrick Leonard trade). So that is probably not what the team is thinking.

It makes more sense if the team wants to use the money is to shore up their starting pitching, since Ervin Santana is likely leaving via free agency, leaving James Shields as the only reliable above-average pitcher in the rotation. The Royals have some interesting young pitching talent, and Jeremy Guthrie pitches a lot of innings, but they probably want something more. The idea might be to a) trade Butler for a starting pitcher, b) trade him for prospects and use the saved salary to sign a pitcher in free agency, or c) along the same lines, to use the savings to retain Santana.

Each of those might be worth discussing in detail themselves, but in all three cases the team would be trading hitting for pitching. Runs are runs, but the question is whether this would actually move the Royals forward. Would the Royals be able to trade Butler for a two to three win pitcher, one who does not have a salary much bigger than Butler’s? I do not know. Again, if they could rip off another team, sure, they obviously should do it, but that is not worth discussing. A trade of two or three wins on offense with equal surplus value does not necessarily move the team forward unless they have a good replacement for Butler’s offense (more on this below). Steamer projects Santana to be roughly equivalent in value to Butler in 2014, and while it would be nice to have him come back, his salary would be substantially bigger than Butler’s If the team has to trade Butler to make budgetary space for a pitcher of roughly the same on-field value who costs more, then it would be actually a step back.

Another factor (not exclusive of the first) in the Royals’ thinking about Butler might be roster flexibility. Butler’s glove, as is well-known, plays best at DH. It is not that he would be the worst first baseman ever (and he probably would not be much worse with the glove than, for example, Prince Fielder), but few teams would put him out there if they had better options. The Royals might think that they could use the roster space better than on a primary DH, especially when Eric Hosmer is going to be around for a while. In the last few years, there has been more emphasis on the added value of multi-position players like Ben Zobrist, and Butler is sort of the opposite of that.

While looking for more roster flexibility in the abstract makes sense (leaving aside any easy jokes about the Royals’ roster management skills), in the Royals’ case, it is not clear how it actually works as a reason for moving Butler. It is not as if the Royals have someone like Ben Zobrist on the team at the moment, even when Emilio Bonafacio (ahem) is on a hot streak. More to the specific point regarding Butler, they do not have players looking for playing time who hit well enough to DH. A DH needs to be an above-average hitter at the minimum, and aside from Butler, the Royals have only three players signed for next season who project to be clearly above-average hitters: Alex Gordon, Eric Hosmer, and Salvador Perez.

Gordon is a good defender in left field, and the team is not so deep with outfielders that he would be a good candidate for frequent time at DH, anyway. Most people think Eric Hosmer is good at first base, and as with the outfield, there is not another credible first base option on the team if he did spend time at DH. That leaves the Royals young and impressive catcher, Salvador Perez. Perez is rightly thought of a defense-first catcher, but though he rarely walks, his decent power and seemingly effortless ability to make frequent and solid contact are enough for Steamer to project him as a slightly above-average hitter (106 wRC+) in 2014. There has been some talk (although it is not clear how much of it is coming from the team) about the Royals wanting to get Perez’ bat in the lineup more often, perhaps by getting him at at DH.

Perez is a good hitter for a catcher. But just being one of a bad-hitting team’s better hitters is not enough for them to move a superior hitter to get Perez more plate appearances when he is not catching. A 106 wRC+ is nice for a catcher, but this is not Joe Mauer or Buster Posey we are talking about here. Even if we assume Perez would hit just as well in games he was DH (not a straightforward assumption), a 106 wRC+ is hardly great for a DH, and certainly is significantly below Butler’s projected production.

Moreover, the Royals would either have to keep an addition emergency catcher around or be willing to risk losing the DH if the player catching when Perez was at DH got hurt during a game. The latter option would not be the end of the world, but the Royals have not shown signs of being willing to take risks like that. Adding an extra catcher to let Perez DH occasionally would rather fly in the face of trading Butler to make the roster more flexible, anyway. The same could be said of replacing Butler with a cheaper DH option or even a platoon — this involves bringing in other players, and those available cheaply likely either would not hit all that well or would not play defense well enough to provide the flexibility at issue.

Does this mean Kansas City should not trade Billy Butler? Not necessarily. The above are just a few speculative possibilities. There may be a larger, more complex line of thinking behind the Royals’ rumored shopping of Butler. Maybe the Royals (who tend to play their cards close their vest on these things) are planning to up payroll significantly, bring back Santana, make a run at, say, Carlos Beltran as their primary DH, and trade Butler to fill some other need. Whether or not this is a smart plan for the Royals is another issue, it is simply an example of a more complex off-season strategy that goes beyond the scope of this post.

In any case, while Billy Butler has good projected value even after a down year, and he might bring back a nice piece in return, it is not clear, barring a ripoff trade or a big budget hike (the latter of which would seem to make trading Butler less necessary) how it could really make the Royals better in the short term. But teams have a way of surprising us.




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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.


34 Responses to “Billy Butler and the Royals’ Off-Season Plan”

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  1. Steve says:

    I like Butler… For the right price, and at DH. O’s maybe?

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  2. Colin says:

    Butler seems like one of those guys that could go to the NL and just have a banner year. Obviously he would be playing a horrible 1b while doing it.

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    • Pirates Hurdles says:

      What? Why would going to the NL improve his numbers (unless you mean Colorado)? The run scoring environment is lower and he would take a massive hit defensively to his WAR.

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      • Stuck in a slump says:

        NL pitching is considered to be not as good as AL pitching because they face pitchers instead of DH’s

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        • Pirates Hurdles says:

          No, pitching in the NL is considered to be easier since they face pitchers. It says little about talent level.

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        • Stuck in a slump says:

          Two pitchers put up similar numbers, one faces off against nine professional hitters, the other faces off against eight and a pitcher. Which pitcher had to be more effective to post those numbers?

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        • blarg22 says:

          And you would be right if NL pitchers and AL pitchers put up the same numbers as their counterparts did, but a pitcher in the NL with the same war as a player in the AL will usualy have a better ERA. Ex. Kershaw v. Schezer

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      • genghiskhanull says:

        I think the American League has been held in a higher regard, talent-wise, than the National League since around the turn of the century. Whether or not this is true (or even provable) is up for debate. At least that’s the impression I’ve had following baseball over the last 10 years or so.

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  3. JBizzy says:

    29 Taters in 2012 not 19, but man would he look good on the Jays, along with their new hitting coach (fingers crossed) Kevin Seitzer.

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  4. Kevin says:

    Matt, Butler’s best career homerun total is 29 not 19.

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  5. Jim says:

    Their definitely is a trend for AL teams that don’t employ David Ortiz to move away from a full time DH and use the spot to rest veterans or hitting catchers and to set up match ups. I think the Yankees used it to perfection in 2012. I also think not having that flexibility could hurt the Red Sox in this series. In St Louis Ortiz or Napoli are going to be forced to the bench.

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  6. Kevin says:

    29 is his best season HR total – typo trying to correct a typo.

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  7. Stuck in a slump says:

    I would love to see him hit and play terribad 1B for the Rockies

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  8. Ruki Motomiya says:

    As long as they trade him to try to improve the team now, I like the Carlos Beltran idea, it works for me.

    If they just try to trade him for prospects or something, then I’ll shake my fist at Dayton Moore and wish every Royals fan gets some free booze to drink the memories away,

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  9. Zen Madman says:

    I think they want to bring Beltran back. I think they *should* want to bring Beltran back, as he could go into the HOF wearing a Royals hat.

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    • Jim says:

      Beltran would only go back to the Royals if he wins it all this year. If they don’t I think he’ll return to the Cards or sign with a more viable contender. I think getting the ring is huge for him.

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      • Antonio Bananas says:

        Shhh, don’t let royals fans know that they don’t have a shot at a ring and in 2015 will be basically back to a sucky team after Shields leaves.

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  10. Alexander Nevermind says:

    Trade Billy Butler to give Sweet Chen Music a much-deserved raise. Start planning the second-consecutive “Feels like a World Series” parade.

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  11. AxDxMx says:

    Personally, I can’t wait for Dayton to finally pull off the Butler for Yuni trade! Bet they only have to give up Zimmer and Ventura to do it too!

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  12. Guest says:

    Trading B. Butler now and losing your middle of the order, stabilizing bat over 2yrs/$20mill actually makes the Shields/ Myers deal look way worse. I can understand buying 2 yrs of a legitimate ace for a corner outfield prospect since it resulted in improved team performance and a near wild card berth. I know most people on here disagree with that, but that’s what they were thinking and the team won more games. But now if you sell off your best bat while Shields is still here, that nullifies the progress that was made. You won’t get a player like Myers back for Butler. What a disappointment for KC fans, hopefully they are just shopping him. Wait until Butler’s contract is up; when he turns down the qualifying offer, just accept the free draft selection.

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    • Ruki Motomiya says:

      Basically what I think, though Alex Gordon could be better than Butler with the bat…but they can only shop Butler around if they replace him, IMO, otherwise their moves go from making lots of sense to making none. I have to admit that Beltran returning to the Royals for DH would be pretty swag.

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      • Guest says:

        Gordon is a gold glove defender in left. I wouldn’t take that defensive value and put it at DH full time. Beltran would make a good DH if they could get him to come back to KC.

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  13. Boom Yoster says:

    I highly doubt Beltran would come back here to Kansas City. If I remember correctly he was infuriated by the fact that Kansas City front offices took his contract down a million dollars when he was about to sign. Quite the slap in the face to Beltran, I’ve heard he wasn’t too happy.

    But what do I know, I watch Royals baseball all season….

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  14. As mentioned in the article- they don’t really have a situation where they would cycle other guys in the DH slot. They are one of the few teams that could easily have a full time DH. Ship him if you can get a good return, but otherwise, getting rid of him provides roster flexibility that they don’t really need.

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  15. Tim says:

    They have a guy they want to catch most of the time and DH some of the time, so obviously they need to trade for a player who can DH most of the time and catch some of the time. By which I mean Ryan Doumit.

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    • Guest says:

      Or maybe C. Santana from CLE? The Indians starters were much better in the second half with Y. Gomes doing most of the catching. Santana has better on base skills, more upside, and youth than Doumit.

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      • Stuck in a slump says:

        And is also a better hitter than Butler and can play two defensive positions, one of which is where Butler could theoretically play every day, the other is C, a far more important position.

        I’d make that trade if you send us half your farm system in return.

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  16. Antonio Bananas says:

    The issue with this article is that it assumes DM agrees with the concept of a pitcher saving a run=a batter creating a run. They traded their top pitching and hitting prospect for 2 years of James Shields because “pitching wins championships”. DM is stupid. I’m guessing another 85ish win season then shields leaves and it’s back to sub .500. I guess royals fans can always look back on 2013/2014 as the glory days where they were somewhat relevant but not really all season.

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    • Antonio Bananas says:

      DM will trade Butler for a pitcher like Jeremy Hellickson (12-10!!!) then overpay for a pitcher in their mid 30s. He’s dumb like that. He’d trade 5 nickels for a quarter and think he came out ahead.

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      • Shauncore says:

        Is there an actual loser in that 5 nickels for a quarter trade?

        Unless you are someone with shallow or already full pockets…

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        • David says:

          I’d rather have the quarter. you can’t use nickels in laundry machines, and bus drivers give you attitude when you pile in nickels. a single quarter is way more practical than a handful of nickels. people are also more prone to spend quarters as nickels and pennies get left behind in change cups and couch cushions.

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  17. kckid says:

    I know this wouldn’t be a popular decision, but why not deal Perez? For the money on his contract he would be very valuable for a team that has a high payroll like the Dodgers. I bet you could get a #3/#4 pitcher and a 2nd baseman like Ellis that would improve both offence and defense. They might even throw in a prospect as well.

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