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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 ShieldsWil Myers trade (or as some see it, the Elliot JohnsonPatrick 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.