Billy Butler: Trade Bait


I’ve seen a bit of  speculation going around that the Royals could or should explore trading one of the only true major league hitters currently on the roster.  Such ideas have come up concerning Joakim Soria and Zack Greinke in the past, as the thought is to get a haul of high-ranking prospects from a team in exchange for a player under team control who’s performing at a high level in the majors.

I have to admit, it’s not the worst idea for a rebuilding team in some cases.  If you’re a GM looking down the pipe and seeing your top prospects as High A stars not far from high school, you might have to consider it if you think your future is still a few years away from developing into a winner.  But at the same time, highly skilled players in their mid-20s don’t grow on trees,  and as they approach their peak years, they’re usually coveted.

So the question is, should the Royals explore trading Billy Butler?

Arguments for:
Billy Butler will be 25 years old shortly after opening day 2011. As a first baseman of his age, he’s hit 51 career homeruns, one per every 36 at bats. Hardly an elite number. A season after hitting a career high 21, Butler’s only managed 11 in 2010 in a year that many felt would be his breakout season.

At a robust 6’1″ 240 lbs, you look at Butler and think power hitter. He’s got the prototypical heavyset first baseman’s look to him to where you expect him to mash 400 foot dingers every series, and yet, he’s about everything but as a hitter. Sure, when he gets his pitch, it goes a long way, but he’s not the type to swing for homeruns.

That’s nothing new. Butler’s highest professional homerun count was 30 in 2005. It’s a good number, and at the age of 19, it’s especially noteworthy. But there’s a caveat. Twenty-five of those homers occurred in the California League when Butler played in the explosive air of High Desert. True, he still hit them, but he had some atmospheric assistance.

Butler’s never been a strong defender. Drafted as a third baseman, he showed he wasn’t capable of handling the hot corner and was moved to the outfield, playing an entire season in Double A Wichita there. In Omaha, he played outfield some and moved to first base. When he debuted in Kansas City, the Royals saw him as a potential option for left field, but the results were at best comical and he got tagged as a young career DH. It’s telling that the Royals brought in Mike Jacobs and started him at first base over Butler.

Considering he’s built like a refrigerator, Butler’s obviously no threat on the basepaths. He has eight professional stolen bases. And five of those came when he was 18 in the Rookie League. He’s also frequently made baserunning mistakes and doesn’t have any kind of speed to maneuver out of them.

Despite some shortcomings, Butler is still just 24 today and has doubles power to all fields. He’s eligible for arbitration for the first time this winter, so the Royals have him under team control until after the 2013 season when he’ll be 27. A lot of teams would pay for a player of Butler’s caliber when they don’t have to bid on him for three years, with the possibility of a contract extension in the equation too. Butler has a career .295 batting average in the major leagues before he can rent a car. That’s still pretty good. A big reason why Butler could be a good trade candidate is because he’d command a handsome return given that affordable contract situation.

In the big picture, though, you’d have to consider that the Royals currently have Kila Ka’aihue who’s done everything he can do in the minor leagues and needs a spot in the majors. Even if the 26 year old Ka’aihue doesn’t figure into the Royals long-term plans, he could still man first base in the absence of Butler. And if the Royals did trade him, and Kila didn’t pan out, Clint Robinson has torn apart Double A and should be in Triple A next year continuing to wreak havoc. The Royals have two reasonable first base options beyond Butler in the minors already.

And then there’s that Eric Hosmer guy. I hear he’s pretty good too.

Mike Moustakas will be in the major leagues next year. It might be in April, it might be in June, but it’s going to happen. Assuming no injuries, he’ll be the starting third baseman of the 2012 Royals when Butler is in his second to last team controlled year at the age of 26. It’s unlikely that at that point the Royals are really ready to contend, relying upon a group of rookies and various young players. If the target is 2012/2013 for that, the Royals would need to lock up Butler to a pricey contract extension sooner rather than later before his power develops and he prices himself out of Kansas City’s market. If that happens, the Royals wouldn’t be as willing to afford his prime seasons. And with Hosmer on the way, they’d have less reason to do so. If they could pick up some outfield and pitching prospects to replenish the minor leagues, Butler would be a prime candidate for trade.

Arguments against:
Billy Butler is 24 years old and has a career 115 OPS+. He hit 51 doubles in 2009 with 21 homers. In his career, every third hit goes for extra bases.

Also he’s only 24, did I mention that?

The prevailing theory holds that a player reaches their peak around 27 years old. As stated above, Butler’s peak years will start (following that theory) when he becomes a free agent. But the signs of that rise will become apparent well before that.

Power develops late, even with young power hitters. I looked at some comparable players to Butler before, and Paul Konerko, Edgar Martinez and Mike Sweeney, all considered first base/DH type sluggers in their prime, had a slow start homerun-wise but each reached (or at least approached, in the case of Sweeney and a pair of 29 homer seasons) 30 homers in a season at various points. In Konerko and Martinez’s cases, they didn’t become true MVP candidates until a few years into their careers.

Trading Butler now would be surrendering those very years.

Look at the guy – he was built to hit for power. He just needs some adjustments to turn some of his groundballs into flyballs, which have a strong likelihood of becoming homeruns. It’s possible he may lose some average that way, but he’ll end up gaining more in overall productivity by creating more runs. Runs equal wins. The Royals have shown time and again this season that mere base hits don’t turn into runs or wins. The type of base hit matters too.

Rather than trading Butler, the Royals need to take advantage of a down 2011 and lock him up now. Sign him through 2016. When Eric Hosmer arrives around 2012 (or maybe 2011), he’ll be the everyday first baseman, but Butler can DH to his heart’s content. By that time, his homerun stroke should be in order.

Imagine a 3-4-5 combination of Eric Hosmer/Billy Butler/Mike Moustakas. Locking up Butler now ensures that in the years when the Royals would need a 30 homer .300 hitting bat in the lineup to contend.

Jim Pittsley was a prospect. Brien Taylor was too. Phil Nevin, Kevin McReynolds, Gregg Jeffries, and the list goes on and on of failed prospects. While I love the potential of Eric Hosmer and would rank him as my favorite Royals prospect, he could very well hit a wall in Omaha and plateau well short of expectations. He’ll make it to the big leagues regardless, but there’s always a chance he disappoints because until he makes it, you just don’t know.

You know what you have now in Butler, and you have an idea of what he could become. Prospects could fizzle out, get hurt, become mere mortals who play only at replacement level. Billy Butler can be a perennial All-Star at a key point when the Royals are starting to contend for playoff spots. You can’t give that up for almost anything, unless gaining an established young hitting star in return in some form.

Billy may not run fast, he may not be a slick fielder. But he can hit. And the Royals are going to need hitters if The Process is going to pay off.

Another consideration, though it shouldn’t factor in one way or the other in the end, is the fanbase. The Royals have a loyal group of fans who have stuck around the organization for years of awful baseball on the promise that one day their patience will be rewarded. We’ve seen Jermaine Dye, Johnny Damon and Carlos Beltran go from the best young outfield in the game to being traded. There’s a sentiment among some casual fans that it’s no use getting used to the good players because “we’ll just give them away anyhow”. And it’s not far from the truth either. Trading Butler on the idea of getting prospects “for the next wave” smacks of another rebuilding process that I’m afraid Royals fans won’t sit through this time.

I would, but I’m a sucker.

Regardless, the Royals should definitely not trade Butler.