The Royals drafted Billy Butler with their first pick (14th overall) in the 2004 Draft. Butler's peers in the '04 first round, with the exceptions of Jered Weaver and perhaps Stephen Drew, have really yet to distinguish themselves, and with a strong showing in '09, Butler might very well emerge as the star of the round. If such a thing existed. Although Butler was a Baird draftee, the bulk of his most meaningful development time has ocurred on Dayton Moore's watch. As we approach the fifth anniversary of his drafting, the question is, has the Royals' development plan worked?
The Beginning: Butler was not a long-hold out, and played seventy two games with the team's rookie league affiliate in Idaho as an eighteen-year-old in 2004. As a Chukar, Butler hit .373/.486/.596, and even went 5-5 in steal attempts (!). In short, he dominated the level. After similar success in A-Ball in '05 (.348/.419/.636) Butler earned a late-season promotion to AA Wichita, where he continued to mash, hitting .313/.353/.527 in 27 games. In 2006, Butler spent an entire season at AA, hitting .331/.380/.499 as a twenty-year-old. Aside from fellow uber-prospect Alex Gordon, Butler had clearly established himself as the best hitter on the '06 Wranglers, eclipsing the slowly busting Chris Lubanski and a handful of older players. Effectively, Butler's time as a true minor league player was over by his age 20 season.
A Note on Fielding: Although Butler hit the ground running at the plate, his ability afield was widely considered to be horrible. Given that Butler is now thought to be incapable of playing the outfield, it is still amazing that at one point he saw substantial time at third (while at High Desert in 2005). During his Wichita years, Butler was employed in the outfield, a perhaps bold gambit that does not appear to have paid off. Since 2006, Butler has increasingly played at first/DH, both at Kansas City and Omaha, with an increasing emphasis on the latter.
2007: Butler did not make the Royals Opening Day Roster, instead beginning his season in Omaha, but nevertheless made his Major League debut on May 1, after an in-season callup. Two weeks later, Butler went back to Omaha for a month. In mid-June he was called up again, and from June 20 through the end of the season, Butler was an everyday player. During his initial stint, Butler had hit .243/.256/.297 in 39 PAs. In his much longer second tour, Butler did much better, hitting .298/.358/.466 in 321 PAs, giving him an overall line of .292/.347/.447 in his first season. Sure, he was a little hit-lucky, as his BABIP was .331, but as evinced above, despite his size, Butler had always been a high BA hitter on sheer strength, not unlike a young Jim Thome. As for his random Omaha time, Butler hit well, but may have also given lie to his future performance pattern as a hitter, posting a .291/.412/.542 line in 57 games. Considering Butler was one of the youngest players to appear in 2006 (it was his age 21 year) this was a tremendous debut for Butler.
2008: The big man made the Royals out of Spring Training, and played in each of the team's first 53 games in 2008. Butler's bat was something of a disappointment however, as the now-DH hit only .263/.330/.339 through May 29. In something of a minor stunner, the Royals sent Butler back down to Omaha, although predictably the move was explained as being semi-motivational or psychological. (Interestingly, an obscure internet site had suggested this move earlier in the month, although the Royals elected to not bring up Shane Costa in Butler's place.) Butler responded with his best stretch of play as an O-Royal, hitting .337/.417/.564 and on June 29 was recalled. Whether it was simply a case of Butler having broken out of an early slump, something to do with effort or merely the natural progression of a young hitter, Butler returned to his 2007 form, hitting .284/.320/.444. This was progress from his early Ken Harvey impersonation, though in the broad view his power development was still more stalled than escalating. All told, Butler hit .275/.324/.400 as a Royal in his age 22 season.
Where we stand:
- First and foremost, Butler is still playing ahead of the standard development curve. He was the third youngest Major League player in 2007, and was the eighth youngest in 2008. To put Butler in proper perspective, it should be noted that he is two years younger than Kila Ka'aihue.
- The Royals aggressively promoted Butler, but it's hard to deny the fact that he seemingly had little left to learn at AA, the last true stop for most players in terms of growth.
- It remains an open question as to if the time spent seeing if Butler could handle the outfield (or third!) was a worthwhile risk or was a waste of time which blocked some modest improvements he could have made to his ability at first. That being said, it increasingly looks like Butler has entered the David Ortiz/Jason Giambi phase of his career at age 23, which could be seen as rendering the question as mute, or evidence of mismanagement.
- The Royals have paid the price for Butler's precociousness to an extent, or at least they will. According to Cot's, Butler service time clock stands at 1.041. Allowing for the very real possibility that this number may be slightly inaccurate, it nevertheless appears that Butler will not qualify as a Super Two after this season. Viewing the matter very coldly, this is the ideal situation for the team, maximizing Butler's time in the Majors, but steering clear of an un-necessary arbitration eligible year.
- Furthering the point above, the Royals have maximized Butler's time in the Majors. When he's been with the team, he has not only played, he's started. Butler has 200 career starts, against only 16 games as a sub.
- In conclusion, there are really only two problematic considerations regarding the handling of Butler, one major, one minor. The minor consideration has been mentioned above, namely, the management of Butler's position. There is a difference between being a functional first-baseman and a DH. From where I sit (in my mother's basement of course) its near impossible to parse through the differences between some hypothetical situation where Butler was a 1B from day one and the status quo. However, it is the job of a number of professionals who work for the team to think through the process, and I can't quite give them a free pass for what's more or less happened with Butler becoming a lifetime DH at age 23. The more major concern is the matter of Butler's bat. Even accounting for 2008's all-too-easy storyline of "he took his medicine and came back more mature" the numbers still show little measurable progress for Butler after over 880 plate appearances. Instead, in nearly every way, Butler was a little bit worse in 2008 than he was in 2007. Given that, there's a half-flippant, but only half-flippant response possible of "what was the point?" Sure, he's not going to be a Super Two, but he's still now over one year of service time, so all these short-term demotions have really only been partial victories, as he might as well have spent more time in Omaha and been below a full year.
I don't know the answer, and can fully admit that there are ways in which a player can still be learning and improving, before the results are fully visible. There's also the entire matter of the wider issue of "learning to be a professional" that encompasses everything on and off the field. Lastly, although I'd love to, there's the real nitty-gritty inside stuff that he's worked on with hitting instructors throughout his career, and the side-question regarding that level of instruction and his ability to listen. These are real concerns, but ones beyond our scope.
At the macrolevel, the fundamental issue is whether or not the Royals have promoted Butler too quickly and burned through too much service time too fast. As opposed to Alex Gordon, a player whose ceiling is now lower than was hoped for three years ago, Butler's youth still gives him nearly all the upside potential he had on Draft Day, 2004. However, he has now accumulated a non-insubstantial amount of Major League playing time, with mixed results. On those results alone, it is time to at least broach the possibility of concern. Butler's comparables on Baseball Reference, which uses only age and statistics, contain a number of horrifying comps, while PECOTA, using a more sophisticated model, is more sanguine, comparing Butler to Dave Winfield and Prince Fielder.
So which will it be? We'll find out.