In trading Zack Greinke, as just about everyone has pointed out, the Royals have definitively punted on 2011. Not that this was really a debatable decision, but it is nevertheless not one that we've typically seen around here. The corollary to the admission that the 2011 season will be a long one, is that, once again, the Royals have put forward their 2012 masterplan. This is especially true given that Dayton Moore fitted the details of the Greinke trade around the lineup he's already imagining.
This process (haha) has been in place since mid-season 2009. Just about everyone of any value (and some with none at all) have been shipped off. At this point, Billy Butler and Joakim Soria are the only guys left standing. There's something to be said for the Royals just going forward and fully committing to Plan 2012 or whatever you want to call it. In that case, trading Billy Butler, not Joakim Soria, should be the number one priority.
While Closer's with a capital C are baseball's most over-rated and over-paid commodities, Soria is signed to an extremely team-friendly contract. In 2011, Soria will earn just $4 million dollars. In 2012, that number goes up to $6 million (club option) followed by a $8 million dollar salary in 2013. In 2014 (another club option) that number will go up to $8.75. Assuming the Royals don't entirely become the Marlins, these are numbers the Royals can live with. More important is the fact that the Royals have Soria under team control through 2014.
Butler, on the other hand, is at the moment only under team control through 2013. Heading into his first arbitration season, Butler's days as a cheap player are over (especially in 2012 and 2013, his second and third arbitration seasons. Butler is an established Major League 1B/DH at the tender age of 24, although his career numbers are a good not great .299/.359/.457. Helping the Royals is the fact that in the last three years, Butler has averaged 16 HRs and 75 RBIs. Those numbers will matter come arbitration time (or, as is more likely, in the pre-arb bargaining).
Essentially, Butler is still a prospect. Because he's been such a precocious player at the Major League level, there is a legitimate chance that he's poised to make a jump to becoming a truly elite hitter. A Butler trade has, without a doubt, a chance to look really bad for the Royals. However, that potential is also what make gives Butler trade value. Butler is a young player with upside and a track record. Butler is basically guaranteed to be a mid-level 1B for the next three years, while still carrying the promise of upside. He's your standard issue 1B prospect ala Smoak or LaPorta, only with almost no risk at all.
A Butler trade would be a major gamble for the Royals. Yet, it is one worth considering. Frankly, Butler's career to date is a little hard to figure out. He's developing into a curious Jon Olerud type of player, only with the body of a Pete Incaviglia type and there hasn't been a clear arc of development. Actually, Incaviglia is in some ways a nice comp for Butler, who might just be someone who got to their destined level of performance quickly and who might stay there, rather than emerging at 27 as a complete beast at the plate. Because Butler plays 1B/DH, the Royals need to begin with the premise that he is replaceable. Unless they believe he can become an elite offensive force, 80% of his production, or more, can likely be found for a fraction of the eventual cost.
When we think about the Royals' timetable for contention realistically, 2013 is really the starting date. 2011 is mostly about killing time. Some of the team's much hyped prospects will be ready to make their debuts in '11, but the majority won't. It's possible that enough impact players emerge as contributors in 2012, but it is more likely that 2012 will be about seasoning, gaining experience, and truly setting everything up. With regards to Butler and Soria, Soria is available for both 2013-14, while the Royals will only have Butler under contract for 2013.
I'd hate to trade a young player with a career OBP of .359 (.388 in 2010!). Then again, trading away a Cy Young pitcher with two years left on his contract wasn't exactly a blast either. The Royals need to make a tough evaluation of Billy Butler. If they truly believe in him, a typical over-pay of his arb years in exchange for an extra year or two of team control kind of deal should be doable. If they aren't so sure, they need to look at shopping him aggressively.