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Billy Butler, Contracts, and the 2004 Draft

Yesterday Sam Mellinger wrote a post about the impressive company the 23 year old Butler is keeping statistically and posed the question, “when should the Royals start thinking about locking him up long term?”

The answer is plainly written all around Kauffman stadium and the Royals organization.  The Royals should start thinking about locking him up long term right now.  In fact, if they haven’t already started thinking about it, then they are already behind the 8-ball.  In the alternate world where I am GM of the Kansas City Royals, Billy Butler has a long term contract offer on the table today.

He is set to make near league minimum again in 2010 before being arbitration eligible 2011, 2012, and 2013 before he becomes a free agent in 2014.  Because of this, my initial offer is a 5 year $40 million contract structured to pay $4 million in 2010, $6 million in 2011, $8 million in 2012, $10 million in 2013, and $12 million in 2014.  This might be a little low, but it is a starting point that is far from insulting and gets Billy and his representation to the table.

The 5 year contract would keep Butler in a Royals uniform through 2014 and buy out his first year of free agency.  The 2010 salary would be in the player’s favor since league minimum is currently slightly more that $400,000 per season.  2011 the contract would shift to the Royals’ favor based on the assumption that Billy could replicate his 2009 season in 2010.  Such a season from an offensive standpoint would merit an arbitration award of at least $6 million.  If that seems high to you, keep in mind that the Royals negotiated with Teahen ($3.575M), Buck ($2.9M), and Jacobs ($3.25M) this season to avoid arbitration and Butler’s current WAR (Wins Above Replacement) value of 1.5 converts to a value of $6.9 million on the free-agent market.  Also keep in mind the list of players Mellinger mentions in the article, because you can be sure that Butler’s representation will be pointing out that list when they submit their salary demands prior to any arbitration hearing.  Every season after 2011 the contract continues to slant in the favor of the Royals assuming Butler continues to develop, and the Royals front office has to assume that he will, in fact, continue to improve during that span.  Billy gets the financial security of $40 million guaranteed over 5 years, which at this stage of his career might be worth taking, especially considering he would still be eligible for free agency after the 2014 season in the prime years of his career and still only 28 years old.  From the Royals standpoint they get a discount by locking him up early on in his career.  Players are always cheaper to sign when they are more unproven.  The team also benefits by having salary figures locked in on Butler instead of being subject to the unknowns of arbitration.  It is much easier to plan on how to allocate your budget and resources when you limit as many financial variables, such as arbitration, on as many players as you can.  Butler would join Soria as players with known salary values locked in through the 2014 season, while the other cornerstone on this team, Zack Greinke is locked in through 2012.

My initial contract offer is probably too low for Butler to sign on, but I am willing to go quite a bit higher to keep him in Kansas City.  While I am willing to spend more, any increase in salary over the life of the contract would need to be coupled with at least 1 club option year for 2015.  The bottom line is that Billy Butler is a special talent and I’m not going to make the mistake of past regimes and wait too long to make a serious offer.  There is no way I let Butler become another Johnny Damon or Carlos Beltran.  They were players that could have been kept in KC if the organization made them a significant contract offer early on in their careers before they had established themselves and before free agency was close enough that there was no reason to sign an extension with the team.  The moral of the story of Damon, Beltran, and several other good players the Royals have watched leave town is that it is better to be a year early than a year late when making a long-term commitment.

Mellinger’s article references some of the company Billy is in when it comes to statistics and the names he gives are impressive.  Names like Evan Longoria, Justin Upton, Adam Jones, Hanley Ramirez, and others pop off the page as you read them.  As every name ticks off the list you can’t help but get a little more excited about our lovable 1B.  I said it once already but it bears repeating; Billy Butler is a special talent.  To find evidence of this beyond what Sam Mellinger covers, I took a look at the 1st round of the 2004 draft and what I found reinforces my belief that Billy should be signed immediately.

The Royals selected Butler 14th overall in the 1st round of the 2004 draft out of Wolfson HS in Jacksonville, FL.  Of the 30 1st round picks that year, 11 of them were position players.  Of those 11 players, Billy Butler stands out from the rest of the crowd with the exception of Diamondbacks SS-Stephen Drew.  First things first, here is a rundown of the other 9 position players drafted in the 1st round that year not named Drew or Butler.

The San Diego Padres got the ball rolling by selecting HS SS-Matthew Bush 1st overall.  He lasted only 812 plate appearances in the minor leagues and never got beyond high-A.  Bush was out of baseball after the 2007 season hitting just 0.219/.294/.276.  He was a signability pick, but the Padres surely expected more.  Instead they got one of the biggest first-round busts of all time.

The next position player taken was another HS SS.  Christopher Nelson was selected by the Colorado Rockies 9th overall.  Though he hasn’t reached the majors yet, he has hit 0.268/.336/.425 in 2,118 PA in the minors.  He is currently in Double-A hitting 0.280/.355/.477 and at age 23 still has a future in baseball ahead of him.

The Pittsburgh Pirates selected HS C-Neil Walker 11th overall.  Just like Bush and Nelson, he hasn’t reached the majors.  In 2007 Walker was moved from C to 3B.  In 2,569 PA in the minors he has hit 0.269/.316/.428.  Walker is in AAA this season and in 295 PA he has hit 0.249/.298/.457.

Billy Butler was taken 14th overall by the Royals and with the next pick, the Arizona Diamondbacks selected college SS-Stephen Drew with the next pick, 15th overall.  We will examine both of them more in depth in just a bit.

With the 18th overall pick, the Chicago White Sox selected college 3B-Josh Fields.  In 1,970 PA in the minors he has hit 0.274/.357/.456 to go with a 0.228/.302/.420 line in 729 PA at the ML level.  This season with the White Sox, in 251 PA, he has hit 0.220/.301/.354.  Outside of his 2007 season with the White Sox when Fields hit 23 HR and had a solid 0.480 SLG, he has done very little and even then his OPS+ was only 101.  With 22 year old Gordon Beckham setting up shop at the hot corner for the White Sox this season, Fields’ window of opportunity has all but closed.

The Minnesota Twins took the next position player when they selected HS SS-Trevor Plouffe 20th overall.  He has hit 0.255/.317/.380 in 2,799 PA in the minors.  Plouffe is currently in Triple-A and is hitting 0.253/.303/.379 in 403 PA this season.  Scrappy, smart, and fundamentally sound, he is the epitome of the typical Twins middle infielder but doesn’t stand out in the organization.  He may reach the majors as a backup, but his chances to become an everyday ML player are almost non-existent.

HS OF-Greg Colson was selected 21st overall by the Philadelphia Phillies, but he is now in the Texas Rangers organization.  He has reached the majors to accumulate 5 SO in 7 PA and is still looking for his 1st ML hit.  In the minors he has hit 0.267/.311/.402 in 2,669 PA.  This season he is in Triple-A and is hitting 0.280/.319/.376 in 389 PA.

With a compensation pick from the Boston Red Sox, the Oakland Athletics selected college C-Landon Powell 24th overall.  Now 27, he got his 1st taste of the majors this season hitting 0.256/.330/.407 in 97 PA.  In the minors Powell has hit 0.257/.362/.438 in 1,223 PA.  He reached the majors as a catcher and has put up respectable numbers.  His minor league track record and brief ML experience suggests that Powell has a decent career ahead of him in the majors as a backup catcher.

With their own pick, the Oakland Athletics selected college OF-Richard Robnett 26th overall.  The 25-year old has hit 0.253/.329/.419 in 2,191 PA and is now with his third organization.  He is currently in AAA hitting 0.224/.278/.336 in 230 PA.  Barring some sort of major turnaround, reaching the majors is probably not going to happen for Robnett.

The Los Angeles Dodgers selected HS 2B-Blake DeWitt with the 28th overall pick.  He was the last position player taken in the 1st round in 2004.  The 23 year old DeWitt has hit 0.277/.335/.441 in 2,427 Minor League PA and 0.255/.334/.375 in 455 Major League PA.

Now lets get back to Drew and Butler.

As mentioned above, SS-Drew was selected 15th overall by Diamondbacks out of Florida State University.  It took Drew only 774 PA, and a hitting line of 0.315/.385/.546 in the minors to firmly establish himself as a legit ML starting SS.  He has now amassed 1,893 PA with the D’Backs and has hit 0.273/.329/.453 in parts of four seasons at the ML level.  This season he is hitting 0.270/.333/.457 in 385 PA.  Drew is now 26 years old and figures to be a legit ML player for years to come.  However, he does not have the ability or potential to be named to multiple All-Star teams, let alone become the superstar that many people envisioned when he was draft.

Finally we come to Billy Butler, who the Royals drafted 14th overall out of HS.  Billy is only 23 yet he has already done more in his career than any of the other 10 position players taken in the 2004 draft.  Originally drafted as a 3B, the Royals moved him to the OF in 2005 before transitioning him to 1B in 2007.  In just about 2 seasons, he has fashioned himself into a slightly below average ML 1B.  His career fielding % of 0.993 is right on the league average while his 9.10 RF9 is just below the league average RF9 of 9.18.  This season he has a -2.3 Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) which isn’t great, but he is still improving.  Anyone who watches the Royals on a game-by-game basis knows firsthand how much better he looks at 1B now than he did at the start of the season.  Defense aside, Billy’s value to the Royals is with the bat.  In 1,279 PA in the majors, he has hit 0.287/.341/.439 with 96 BB and only 179 SO.  This season he has hit 0.296/.354/.475 in 441 PA while taking over as the team’s primary #3 hitter.  In 119 hits, before tonight’s game, he had 33 doubles and 13 home runs and was on pace for 49 doubles and 19 home runs for the season.  Tonight Butler went 3-4 with 3 doubles giving him 36 on the season and bumping his pace up to 53 by the end of the year.  Hal McRae’s single season team record of 54, set in 1977, is in serious jeopardy.  What Billy Butler has done in the majors should not come as a surprise to anyone who watched him hit in the minors.  In 1,779 Minor League PA, he hit 0.336/.416/.561 with 204 BB and only 267 SO.

Stephen Drew plays the more demanding position, but outside of that, Billy Butler is easily the best position player to come out of the 1st round of the 2004 draft.  On the strength of his bat, he has a chance to shatter Royals records and become a superstar.  Still 3 years younger than Drew and only 23 years old, the future looks very bright for Billy Butler.  The Royals need to recognize this and give him a long-term contract right now.  There should be little doubt regarding his future production.  At just 21 years old he hit 0.292/.347/.447 for the Royals, in 360 PA, in his first taste of the big leagues.

Greinke, Soria, and Butler are the cornerstones this franchise needs to build around.  They are the only 3 potentially elite players the team has and the first two have already signed contract extensions to remain with the Kansas City Royals.  It is time for Dayton Moore to do what it takes and sign Billy through at least 2014.

Tags: AL Central Baseball Billy Butler Blake DeWitt Christopher Nelson Greg Colson Josh Fields Kansas City Royals KC Landon Powell Matthew Bush MLB Neil Walker Richard Robnett Stephen Drew Trevor Plouffe

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