The Royals, Billy Butler, and Young Pitching

The Royals have been one of baseball’s most active teams so far this offseason, first swinging a trade for Ervin Santana before re-signing Jeremy Guthrie. GM Dayton Moore has made no secret of his desire to improve a starting rotation that finished 26th in ERA (5.01), 25th in FIP (4.59), and 28th in innings (890.0) this season, and reports indicate that he’s willing to deal one of his young position players for a young, high-end arm. Alex Gordon, Mike Moustakas, and even Eric Hosmer have been floated as trade candidates, ditto Billy Butler.

Butler, 26, is a .300/.362/.468 (121 wRC+) career hitter in over 3,500 big league plate appearances. He enjoyed the best season of his career in 2012, hitting .313/.373/.510 (140 wRC+) with a career-high 29 homers and 3.2 WAR. That earned him his first All-Star Game nod and Silver Slugger. Butler’s biggest negative as a hitter is his propensity to hit the ball on the ground (career 47.2%), which has limited his power output (career .168 ISO) and makes him the mother of all double play candidates — he’s bounced into a twin-killing in 18% of his career opportunities, well-above the 11% MLB average.

As an overall player, Butler’s biggest drawback is that he simply doesn’t have a position. He’s started 549 of 648 possible games at DH over the last four seasons, and the various metrics rate him as a lousy first baseman in just under 3,000 career innings at the position. Given how players with his body type generally age, he should probably be viewed as strictly a DH going forward.

Unfortunately, those shortcomings on the non-offense side of the game really limit Butler’s value both on the field and in trades. There have been just 25 3.0+ WAR seasons by a DH in the last decade, and six belong to David Ortiz. Travis Hafner (three), Jim Thome (two), and Jason Giambi (two) also make multiple appearances on the list, so it’s a rather exclusive club. On top of that, more and more clubs are starting to view the DH spot as an opportunity to rotate players. Unless we’re talking about an Ortiz or an in-his-prime Hafner, few clubs like to clog up the DH position with one set player.

That said, Butler is obviously a very good hitter. He’s also at a point in his career where you could expect him to still get better (particularly in the power department) or, at the very least, hold his current level of production for a few more seasons. Right-handed power — Butler has shown a platoon split in recent years but he’s still been above-average against righties — also tends to be at a premium, so that’s another feather in his cap. We also have to note his contract: Butler is signed through 2014 for $8 million annually with a $12.5 million club option ($1 million buyout) for 2015. It’s an affordable rate, even at DH, as long as he keeps hitting.

Now it does take two to tango. WAR tells us one thing about Butler’s value while what clubs are willing to give up for him in a trade tells us another. Few clubs have top shelf young pitching to spare, but the Mariners and Rays — both of whom have been connected to Butler in the not-too-distant past — both fit the bill. Tampa’s guys are more established at the big league level, which I’m sure is something Kansas City would value. Jeremy Hellickson‘s name has been floated in recent reports, for example.

The number of bat-first players to get traded with two guaranteed years left on their contract is pretty small, so our best trade comparison might actually be Hanley Ramirez. He compiled 7.5 WAR in the 2+ years prior to his trade (Butler is at 7.9 WAR over the last three years) and fetched a strong pitching prospect in return — Baseball America ranked Nate Eovaldi as the 96th best prospect in baseball prior to this season. There were other miscellaneous pieces in the deal (Randy Choate and Scott McGough), but Hanley-for-Eovaldi was the centerpiece.

Ramirez was a little older and much more expensive (owed $31.5 million over the next two years) than Butler at the time of his trade, but he also has multiple superstar-caliber seasons to his credit. It’s obviously an imperfect comparison, but these things always are. That a player with Ramirez’s track record was only able to fetch a borderline top-100 prospect doesn’t bode well for the Royals if they’re looking to deal Butler, who doesn’t have a position and really isn’t a bat-first guy. He’s a bat-only guy.

I think Guthrie is pretty underrated and Santana is a bounceback candidate, so the Royals have improved their rotation at least somewhat these last few weeks. If Moore wants to add a young high-upside arm to his rotation, using Butler as trade bait wouldn’t be his best plan of attack. Gordon would bring a much greater return given his contract and two-way game, plus Moustakas and Hosmer offer more upside and years of team control. A good DH is more of a luxury than a necessity these days, further limiting what already figures to be a limited trade market for Butler’s services.




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Mike writes about the Yankees at River Ave. Blues and baseball in general at CBS Sports.

49 Responses to “The Royals, Billy Butler, and Young Pitching”

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  1. Spike says:

    Rays generally shy away from defensively weak players. Could see him as an A though. Brett Anderson for Butler?

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    • ecp says:

      I would do that, if I’m the Royals.

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    • Robert J. Baumann says:

      I don’t think there’s any way Billy Bean would do that, given that he can get guys like Brandon Moss for nothing. I don’t expect Moss to be as consistent as Butler, but guys like Moss cost nothing to acquire and are playing for under $1mil for the next couple of seasons. And the A’s are one of the teams that are using the DH spot to rotate players. Cespedes will probably need some days there to keep him healthy, etc.

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    • Baltar says:

      The Rays need a DH. I don’t think they care how good their DH’s defense is.

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    • Shauncore says:

      Brett Anderson isn’t enough. Royals would want Milone or Griffin or Parker. Think cost controlled and young.

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  2. Keith says:

    Let’s not forget that Ramirez was a malcontent with declining numbers when he was traded. Butler may be slower than a mule but he is good in the clubhouse and as you indicated his numbers should rise. If the Royals get the equivalent of Eovaldi for Butler, I think the remaining Royals fans will run Dayton Moore out of town.

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  3. maqman says:

    As a Mainers fan I have no desire to see them trade for Butler, Montero can do DH reasonably well and will improve over time. KC will probably want more for Gordon than they deserve but Moustaaes might be doable for both teams.

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  4. J6takish says:

    I’m a little skeptical of how big the DH penalty is. Butler was a 140 wRC hitter thus season and only posted 3.4 war. The royals could have put him at 1st and his personal war could have gone up, but do the royals really gain any value by that? The formula seems to tell me ” a shitty first baseman is more valuable than an above average DH because he can play a shirty first base”

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    • Steve says:

      That’s not accurate. The formula says that 1B isn’t that hard to play. If you play it shittily, that will decrease your value and the team’s value.

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    • Dave Cameron says:

      Actually, it’s the opposite. The position adjustment for DH is -17.5 runs, while at first base, it’s -12.5 runs. Essentially, any 1B who is a -5 defender or worse will rate higher as a DH than a 1B.

      Butler only rated as +3.2 WAR because he was the worst baserunner in the sport (-6.5 runs, essentially tied with Fielder and Montero). If he could actually run, he’d have been a nearly +4 WAR player. WAR isn’t biased against DHs. It just recognizes that there’s more to baseball than hitting, and Butler isn’t even a Major League player at anything besides standing in the batter’s box.

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      • Chicago Mark says:

        Nice Dave. As you might know, I’m not a big fan of the new metrics. Old dog and all…. What percentage of WAR is comprised of baserunning. Also, it seems as if you’re down playing Butler’s abilities. Is 3.2 WAR good? I’m not being smartie pants here. This old dog just doesn’t know. Where would a team made solely of 3.0 players end in the standings? I understand he’d be even worse at SS, 2B, etc. But just on 3.0 WAR alone, how good/bad of a team would that be. Also, am I as alway confused? Would it be -5 defender or better? I really like that you chirped in on this discussion. Thanks.

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      • blahblahblah says:

        @ChiMark,

        2 WAR is an average player. Last year 72 qualified positional players posted a 3.0 WAR or higher, and that is out of a total of 143 such hitters (so perfectly 50% of Qualified players were 3.0 or higher ~ as everyone knows, above average players are more likely to see a qualifying amounts of playing time.) That might seem like a lot, but in reality its only 2-3 such hitters on every team (The Royals had 3; Butler at 3.2, Moustakas at 3.5 and Gordon at 5.9) . To give you an even better idea of the WAR range though, there were 23 hitters with WARs over 5.0 and 8 posted a WAR above 7.0 – with Mike Trout topping the list at an amazing 10.0.

        As far as how well an all 3.0 WAR team would do? Well teams generally get about 6200 PA over a season, and 600 PA is the mark you expect of a starter. You then have the total of all your hitters coming in at the playing time of about 10.3 full-timers. Meanwhile 10.3 Full-Timers producing an average of 3 WAR each would be worth 30.9 WAR ~ which is the value of the Yankees hitters for 2012; or, the forth best team hitting last season.

        When it comes to positional adjustments a fulltime 1B is worth 5 Runs more then a DH, so a perfectly -5 fielding 1B would be worth exactly the same as if he were a fulltime DH instead. If he is worse then -5 Fielding, he would have more value at DH because his poor fielding is negating the +5 value First Basemen hold over Designated Hitters.

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      • Chicago Mark says:

        “rate higher as” AS a DH. I told you I’m an old dog. Thanks Blah! In the end though the 3.2 WAR put up by Butler even as a DH was good. Or at least above average. I just didn’t like how Dave dismissed him because his value comes stricktly by hitting. I’d guess if he played in Boston in that field he’d be much closer to Big Papi than we think. Additionally, I’d guess the Sawx would much rather him at 1B OR even LF than what they have (Gomes?). I pick Boston simply because it’s such a hitters park and comparing to Big Papi probably ain’t a bad thing.

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      • A little confused says:

        Um, I think it took 3 paragraphs to explain roughly how a statistic from a single year can be used to compare the historical average of a player’s value based on some ‘runs’ metric for defense, something about baserunning and batting. This WAR statistic is thrown around a lot but it is rather complicated

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      • Blue says:

        Ah, yes, the lovely baserunning WAR strikes again.

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  5. maqman says:

    Actually I can spell Moustakas.

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  6. Pat says:

    I’d love to see the Pirates work out a deal where they can get Alex Gordon and one of the Royals young bullpen arms for someone like Jameson Taillon and maybe another prospect around the top ten. I think that would be fair for both sides, and I’m usually skeptical of young SP prospects so I’d prefer to flip them instead.

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    • ThirteenOfTwo says:

      Everyone is skeptical of pitching prospects. That’s sort of the problem. I imagine the Royals would like to get back a player with MLB experience for Gordon.

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      • Pat says:

        I would say James McDonald would be interesting to the Royals, as they did take a chance on Sanchez last year and can use someone with the potential to be a top 3 pitcher, but certainly not for someone like Gordon, Hosmer, or Moustakas. Butler maybe but I’m not sure I’d like to see him play 1B everyday.

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      • Shauncore says:

        @Pat:

        Hosmer/Butler/Moose For James McDonald, a 28 year old with a career 4+ ERA?….no.

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      • Ericpalmer says:

        @shauncore

        He said “certainly not for Gordon, Hosmer, or Moose”. He was saying that he could see the Royals dealing for him, but not for one of their stud players.

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  7. Juancho says:

    The Royals have a solid young major league lineup right now, and an above-average bullpen. The weakness is the starting rotation. The payroll is low and David Glass could easily shell out for one more starting pitcher. I would not trade any major-leaguers (except of course Francoeur); I would be willing to deal any prospects but Myers, Odorizzi, and Starling. Let’s say they pick up another adequate starter.

    Then you have a rotation of Adequate Guy/Santana/Guthrie/Mendoza/Odorizzi, with Chen as starter six when somebody gets hurt, and Duffy and Paulino come back in about August to take the places of the two worst of the bunch. (We are assuming that Hochevar does not come back.) That team might go .500 and provide the fans some amusement. Which would be a nice change.

    I wouldn’t trade Butler simply because he is likely to hit better next year than last year. He is very consistent and his power is developing. He is a poor first baseman but can do the job in an emergency; he’s a 4, not a 5. And if you trade him you have to get somebody else to whack forty doubles and thirty homers, maybe more.

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    • Shauncore says:

      Pretty spot on except for “and an above-average bullpen.”

      Royals had the #1 pen in the MLB. If they could have coupled that with even average pitching, then their probably a top 10-ish overall pitching staff.

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      • Paul says:

        No.

        The Royals bullpen was first in WAR, due mostly to them throwing so many innings. By every other measure they were fourth or fifth. Yes, innings matter, but the Rockies bullpen was second to the Royals. Who would take the Royals bullpen over Cincinnati’s, for example?

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    • blahblahblah says:

      Its sad really, as the Royals are in almost the same situation Baltimore was going into the last couple seasons.

      Baltimore kept their needed offensive pieces, traded their non-essential Vet parts who were not going to be around in 2012/2013 anyway, focused on crafty signings of under-30 players and kept the hope for internal pitchers actually producing despite prior poor performance.

      Moore is apparently much smarter then that though, and instead of a well thought-out, inexpensive, all-under 29 Rotation put together with struggling internals and other teams spare parts like the O’s, he’s going for an expensive all above 29 rotation of stop-gap “vets” to go with an offensive core he is willing to take away from. (Have to make sure you keep enough room for Frenchy to play, afterall, apparently…)

      The money invested in the likely 2012 rotation or Santana, Guthrie, Chen, Hoch (you really think Moore will give up on him? Without ever seeing any value? Not very Moore like if you ask me) or whoever they are “still looking for” to replace him is enough to pay for the first couple years of a true Ace. A willingness to free the team of Francoeur would have paid for a chunk of a filler inning-eater like Guthrie (but one under 30 would have been a better target) and possibly brought a bit-player in return.

      There were tons of options to go with a really good core about ready to shine. Moore is trying to take the mindless, short-term and expensive “named” additions route though – you feeling confident?

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      • Juancho says:

        I never feel confident about the Royals. All I want is entertainment. Like, a team that plays good baseball most of the time and wins half its games and doesn’t screw up all over the place. Hoch and Frenchy must go. Adequate Starter Guy must be signed. That would leave us with a pretty decent team for 2013.

        Add Paulino, Duffy, and Zimmer to the rotation in 2014 and sign someone better than Santana, who is fortunately on board for only one year and is quite likely to get hurt, and we have a rotation of Adequate Guy/Guy Better than Santana/Guthrie/Odorizzi/Paulino/Duffy/Zimmer. The best five of those guys might make a good rotation.

        And if ifs and buts were candied nuts we’d all have a hell of a Christmas, as my grandad used to say.

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  8. blahblahblah says:

    Alex Gordon, Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer, Billy Butler, Wil Meyers, Salvador Perez, Alcides Escobar… These guys are supposed to be the entire offense, all in peak range, all extremely affordable as a whole, during the Royals 2014-2015 run – that is “The Process” for Pete’s sake!

    But now the Royals are willing to trade from their desperately needed core to add even more pitching despite their unwillingness to actually take the lumps and just give the ML experience and training needed to the young, ML-Ready pitchers already in house?

    I understand their young pitchers are not producing properly yet, but repeating AAA for 3-4 years isnt going to change that – and bringing in anything short of an Ace at the expense of your core is merely rearranging chairs for no actual real benefit. If those already in-house young, affordable arms dont start turning into atleast Average-ish starters filling the 3-5 spots by 2014/2015 then there is no 2014/2015 anyway; an aging Guthrie and a continual bunch of hired scrubs isnt going to cut it

    With their insistence on burying the young starters experience time under mediocre vets in 2013, and their willingness to trade from their needed talent core to make up for the lack of experience and advancement of said starters – well it looks like “The Process” is out the window and instead its been replaced with the typical Royals “how can we tread water while making it look like we are trying” mind-state we have seen for years now.

    I’m beginning to think Ownership is basically done with Moore and he is desperately trying anything he can to even marginally improve his 2013 win total to save his job; even if its at the expense of “The Process” and the teams Future.

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    • Paul says:

      Agree with every word of this. Sadly, most Royals fans will continue to be duped by what apparently is now a ruse. But if fans are willing to settle for a mildly entertaining, .500 team, why would you as an owner bother taking any actual risk?

      For those who think Kansas City needs to continually settle for lesser players, have you heard of Detroit? The suburbs are nice, as they are in Kansas City, but the city itself is bankrupt. The difference is that ownership and the GM go for it. They don’t make excuses and they don’t plead poverty or bad market. This method of doing business is entirely of the Royals choosing, and it is guaranteed to fail.

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  9. Dan the Mets Fan says:

    Jamie Shields for Billy Butler seems to me to be just about the most sensible deal I’ve heard of. Sure, the Rays might not like a one-dimensional player like Butler that much, but they sure could use his bat. I think they would be nuts not to A) trade Shields this offseason and B) not to get a big offensive upgrade that can help them win now. For the Royals, Shields is probably the best pitcher you can get for Butler. I don’t like the odds of them getting someone of his caliber without giving up major league talent. They could then turn around and shop some of their minor league talent for a replacement DH – maybe take a look at a Mike Morse or some other fielding-inept NL slugger who needs to move to the AL.

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    • blahblahblah says:

      Shields is a 4.5-5 WAR top-of-rotation starter making 21MM the next two seasons (13-14)

      Butler is a 3 WAR DH making similar money

      Sorry, I just dont think such a trade is going to take place – TB can get a better return.

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      • Dan the Mets Fan says:

        Perhaps they could, but I’d argue that Shields’ value will be likely replaceable with internal options. And Butler’s value comes where they need it, with pure offense. I’m not sure they can get a better hitter than Butler in return for Shields. I think you are right they could get some better prospects at any position and that would be the much better long term move, but I’m not sure you would find a better win-now move than making this trade.

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      • ThirteenOfTwo says:

        Dan-just because Shields’ value can be replaced by internal options doesn’t mean the Rays should trade him for less than the maximum return they can get. Which is more than Billy Butler. A player’s trade value is independent of whatever roster crunch exists on his own team.

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      • Simon says:

        I’m not sure that a player’s trade value genuinely is independent of his team’s roster situation. Trade partners are aware that the team with the crunch needs to make a trade and, unless there is a big market for the player in question, offers are likely to be low. Maybe that doesn’t apply to Shields, as he might have a pretty solid market, and there’s less of a compulsion to deal to resolve a starting pitcher crunch (as they usually resolve themselves pretty quickly).

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  10. vivalajeter says:

    Why not make a run at RA Dickey? They have the prospects to make a trade happen. They have offensive potential and a very good bullpen. Dickey would give them 200+ innings at the top of their rotation. Sure, he’s only signed for 1 year, but he makes peanuts next year and would be an instant improvement. As Dave’s article the other day mentioned, there’s enough volatility where just about any team has a chance at the playoffs if things go right. Why not go for it?

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  11. James says:

    Cleveland needs a RH bat and power. I believe Masterson’s name has been floated around the league.

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  12. kiss my GO NATS says:

    Have the Royals ever had an above average pitching staff since Brett Saberhagen left in 1991? Seems like the same story every year. They hit but get pounded pitching!

    The reality is the Royals seem damn awful at developing pitchers! Other than Greinke, I can’t think of an average or better Royal pitcher since Saberhagen off the top of my head!

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    • kiss my GO NATS says:

      Actually looking there are 4 real good starting career pitchers since 1980. Appier gave them 46 war 1990-1998. Gubicza 44.9 WAR 1984-1996. Saberhagen 1984-1991 41.7 WAR. lastly Grienke 2004-2010 26.7 WAR. Hochevar is 9th on the list of game starts as a pitcher since 1980. larry Gura is 6th (but he did pitch all of the 70s). Not a very impressive list for 30 years of hard work!

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  13. jim fetterolf says:

    My preference is to trade Gordon for prospects to someone like the Reds or Seattle and use the payroll saving from him and Hoch to give Anibal Sanchez his 6/90 contract. Gordon is good, but he is a left fielder. and his gaudy OBP doesn’t translate into runs scored or driven in.

    Billy won’t ever be worth more to a trade partner than he is to the Royals, so probably should be kept.

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  14. Juancho says:

    Jim Fetterolf? THE Jim Fetterolf?

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  15. slackerjack says:

    if developing a cheap 3 WAR DH is so easy, Tampa would have gone ahead and done that already, right? since longoria, the rays have proven to be gloriously inept at developing homegrown hitting talent.

    butler is cheap and young enough to continue improving. seems like kind of a no brainer to me. shields and price will both be gone after the end of the 2014 season. given where the rays are in the success cycle, they should be thinking of ways to win now.

    the alternative is to trade away David price for something better, but I am not sure who that is.

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