Enough Already

So the Royals traded Zack Greinke.  It happened.

Now it seems every other Royals-related article focuses on one of two players: Billy Butler and Joakim Soria.  The reason?  Gauging their trade value.

Maybe I missed the announcement, but is the Glass family holding a fire sale?

Greinke’s trade was a result of numerous factors, but primary among them was his contract, which was set to expire after 2012.  You know the story already – Royals plan to get a wave of prospects into the big leagues in 2012 with an eye towards a window starting in 2013 to be a yearly contender in the AL Central.

Greinke didn’t want to sign an extension and amidst worries that he might be disinterested in 2011 (and see his performance suffer), the Royals needed to move him and got a good, not great return, but they did improve areas of deficiency.  The Greinke trade makes sense in that context of player, team, future goals and organizational timetables.

What I don’t get, though, is the questions about where Billy Butler fits in.  It seems like people are trying to chase him off already, at the ripe age of 24.

The general idea is as such: Eric Hosmer is rising through the system.  Butler is under contract until after 2013.  Move Butler now while he has years of relatively cheap production to go for a haul of prospects.  The Royals currently have Kila Ka’aihue and Clint Robinson in the system as well if they’d need a first baseman for 2011 or 2012.

I get all that.  I won’t even say it’s absurd given the depth chart.  Butler has the most trade value of any offensive player on the Royals and at a premium offensive position.  He’d be a worthy trade chip if the Royals sought to move him.

Rather than trade him, though, I think they should sign him to an extension before spring training.

When the time comes that the Royals get competitive, they’ll need established major league performers around.  Assuming Hosmer makes the big leagues in 2012 (likely after June), Butler would likely move to designated hitter.  That probably leaves Ka’aihue out in the cold, and who knows where Clint Robinson will end up at that point.  Butler’s a better immediate and long-term option than both of them.  He’s also younger than both.

Anytime you trade an established player with a legitimate track record for prospects, there’s a risk.  In the case of the Greinke trade, there’s nothing that says Alcides Escobar is going to turn it around after a disappointing rookie season.  It’s likely.  He has the tools to be more productive.  But there’s no guarantee.  Likewise for Lorenzo Cain – he may only be a spot starter or fourth outfielder for most of his career.  He could also develop power and combine that with his speed to be a solid dual threat.  You just don’t know.

With Butler, we know.  He has the swing and approach at the plate that doesn’t seem to give him the potential for repeated 30-homer seasons, but he’s also only 24.  If he turns 5% of his grounders into line drives and 5% of his line drives into flyballs, he may see a spike in slugging percentage and make less outs on the ground.  He could develop similarly to Todd Helton, who hit just 26 homers as a minor leaguer over six seasons, but once he hit the majors, put together six consecutive seasons (from age 25-30) with a batting average above .320 and 30+ homers (granted Butler doesn’t have the benefit of Coors Field, but .300 and 20+ is reasonable in Kauffman Stadium over a similar span).

Really?  We want to trade that for a batch of unknowns?

I can see the angle that if baseball’s new collective bargaining agreement determines that the draft implements a hard slotting system, the Royals and other small market teams who have invested first-round signing bonuses to draft prospects who slip into later rounds will be at a disadvantage, so they should snag all the young talent they can get and stash it away.

Well, Billy Butler‘s 24, so…I think that qualifies as young talent.

I like the idea put forth by Michael Jong at Fansided’s Marlins site, MarlinManiac.com.  His proposal regards the Marlins and prospects Mike Stanton and Logan Morrison.  He pitches the idea that the Marlins should follow the same pattern they’ve shown with Josh Johnson, Ricky Nolasco and Hanley Ramirez and offer more money up front now (essentially early raises before later arbitration years) in exchange for affordable arbitration and post-arbitration seasons.  In Butler’s case, the idea would be to pay him handsomely now to extend him through, say, 2016.

I like the plan because, in the Royals case especially, when the Mike Moustakas, Hosmer, Mike Montgomery, et al wave comes into town, they’ll be rookies or second year players making the league minimum.  The Royals could afford it.  Once those young players start hitting arbitration years, Butler would still be in his affordable late-contract years and might be a valuable trade chip at that point, ideally with years of increased power on his resume.

In the case of Joakim Soria, the Royals already have him under a very favorable contract.  Mariano Rivera, in the twilight of his career, will make $15 million in each of 2011 and 2012.  Soria, in the peak of his, will make $26 million over the next four years (assuming the Royals pick up his 2014 option).

Soria’s among the top closers in the game, and if he were on any other team but the Royals, he’d be the heir apparent to Rivera’s throne.  Even in Kansas City, he might be ready for that title.  So yeah, he’s valuable.

There have been reports of teams inquiring about Soria, and the Royals are wisely turning those suitors away.  While I’m on the side of baseball fans who think the closer position is overrated, when you have a player like Soria or Rivera who is almost a guaranteed save, you might as well enjoy it.  Would I prefer Soria be used more often and in more situations that aren’t quite by the book?  Of course, but Rome wasn’t built in a day and Ned Yost isn’t the type to veer from The Book.  I won’t hold my breath.

Regardless, Soria will be an important piece of the puzzle in 2013 if the Royals are in the mix, and he’ll be vital in 2014 once the young players have really started to gel.  He seems content to be in Kansas City, and while I wouldn’t look at another extension yet, by the end of 2012, it’s going to be time to consider it.

That all being said, I wouldn’t say either Butler or Soria should be entirely off limits.  If someone wanted to trade their top three prospects and one of those happened to be a power-hitting outfielder and another a solid catcher with a starter thrown in, fine.  Pull the trigger.  If Butler can net something similar, I’d go for that too.  My issue is that Soria’s value is higher on the Royals than any speculative prospects he could return.  Butler’s value isn’t at its peak yet, I believe.

Trading either right now would be a mistake, whether 2011 is a lost cause or not.

Another factor in my mind is the law of diminishing returns.  I’m completely fine with have a stacked minor league system.  Once those players start getting promoted, the Royals will have to replenish the minors with the next wave.  To do that now, you’d have to move players for younger prospects, which is an increased risk – they’re less likely to actually make it.  Plus, if the Royals have Moustakas, Escobar, Christian Colon (or Johnny Giavotella) and Hosmer in their infield with Wil Myers behind the plate and have Alex Gordon, Lorenzo Cain and perhaps David Lough in the outfield, there’s a strong chance that any prospects in the minors could be blocked for a long time, provided everyone stays healthy.

It’d seem pretty silly to trade Butler (who’d be in the lineup) for someone who’d just get stuck at Omaha, waiting for Hosmer to pull something to get his shot.  At some point you can’t just keep collecting prospects – you have to put major league ballplayers on the field, on the mound and into the lineup.

Maybe I’m being short-sighted.  Or I’m valuing the name on the back of the jersey too much.  Maybe I just like Billy Butler and don’t want to put up with a cloud hanging over Kauffman Stadium as another young star is discussed in trade talks.

Maybe I just want it to be 2012 already.

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Topics: AL Central, Baseball, Billy Butler, Dayton Moore, Eric Hosmer, Joakim Soria, Kansas City Royals, KC, Kila Kaaihue, MLB, Royals, Wil Myers, Zack Greinke

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