There has been a lot of discussion floating around the board lately regarding the Royals' starting pitching. Its faults, its flaws, its obvious shortcomings, and outside of, say, Danny Duffy, a Luke Hochevar "every 5th start" spectacle, or the pre-injury dealings of Bruce "Egg" Chen, its general ineffectiveness to maintain a resemblance to anything approaching a competent rotation.
And the conclusion that most have come to is that the Royals should trade Billy Butler. Comments have been made to the extent of "maximizing his value" and "he's just a DH" and "We can bring up Clint Robinson" and "A DH is easier to replace than a starting pitcher."
And while there may be some semblance of truth to some of what is being said, let's not forget A) What he has accomplished so far and B) What he may be capable of in the future.
And possibly the most important question: what is it that you can actually hope to get in return for a player like him right now?
In essence, who is Billy Butler?
In 2009, Butler finished the season with a .301/.362/.492 (OPS .854) line and an OPS+ of 125. While making $421,000, Butler scored a 2.1 WAR, production that was worth roughly $9.4m on the FA market that year. He hit 21 HRs with 93 RBI, 51 doubles, a triple, and a stolen base.
In 2010, Butler finished with a "better" season, hitting at a .318/.388/.469 (OPS .857) clip. His OPS+ was 135. While making $470,000, Butler scored a 2.8 WAR, worth approximately $11.3m on the FA market. He hit 15 HRs with 78 RBI and 45 doubles.
In both seasons, his combined defense and baserunning cost him about a full win share (1.05 in 2009, 0.9 in 2010).
So far this season, Butler is hitting to the tune of .293/.391/.415 (OPS .806), with an OPS+ of 129. He is making $3.5m this year, with 3 HRs, 19 RBI and 14 doubles. His 162-game average puts him on pace for 10 HRs and 61 RBI while drawing a ridiculous 96 walks to just 80 strikeouts. The quick math also puts him on pace for about 2.5 WAR this year, which puts his value at about $10m for the season on the FA market.
So that is what Billy Butler is and has been. But what could he be?
The most common comparison I hear people make regarding Billy Butler is Edgar Martinez. Both are very proficient with the bat, while being considered ill-equipped to play in the field. So, if Butler is destined to be the next Martinez, what can you reasonably expect him to be?
Here is Butler's and Martinez's WAR, by age:
Bear in mind that Butler is in his age 25 season currently, and barring a massive setback, will easily outreach Martinez this year. Also, keep in mind that in 1993-1994 is when Edgar Martinez started suffering from the cadre of injuries that removed him from fielding permanently. In '94 he came back and played 65 (out of 89) games in the field, but only 4 in '95, 2 in '96 (for 3.0 IP total) and 1 in '97 (for 0.1 IP) at third base, while never playing more than 7 in any season at first.
Here is there cumulative WAR by age:
If you consider Butler to be the rough equivalent of Edgar Martinez, and Martinez's career to be a keen aggregate for what you can expect from Billy, than Butler's best years are ahead of him. He made it to the majors before EdMart, and his first seasons have been very successful, given his age and experience. Even if Butler puts up 80% of what Martinez did during his four best seasons, you are looking at a 4-year average of a WAR around 5.25 per season.
However, it is important to point out that Butler will only be entering his peak years by the end of his current contract. The club option for 2015 is only Butler's age 29 season, when he is presumed to be in the 2nd-3rd year of his peak offensive performance.
Which brings us to the third question: What can you reasonably expect to receive for Butler right now?
Here is the list of pitchers that had a cumulative WAR between 4.5-6.5 over the last two seasons (min. 160 IP):
|Jorge De La Rosa|
There is not a whole lot there that would have me running to pick up the phone and get another GM on the line (presuming that what we are looking for is what many on this site have talked about, which is an instant-upgrade rotation arm in return for Butler). Assuming you would want to get back multiple pieces, I doubt you will get back young, cost-controlled major league arms such as Brett Anderson, Dallas Braden, or Clay Buchholz. You'd be looking more at MLB-ready AAA arms, or even young pitchers with very little experience, but have shown success in their minor league career and brief major league appearances (i.e. Vance Worley of the Phillies).
And then what? Because what you get in return for Butler has to be successful, and would have to be successful at the MLB level no later than 2012. Otherwise, this fanbase would tear you asunder, and you could count on not getting another contract extension, Mr. ArmChairGM.
Trading Butler right now, or even before the end of next season, seems too imprudent.
- You still don't know what he may become, considering how young he is.
- You have little to no guarantees for what you can expect (performance-wise) in return.
- His value, as high as it is right now, will probably not be maximized for at least another year or two.
To put it more succinctly, trading him now would be like trading Zack Greinke before the 2009 season.
One of the bigger concerns right now, for me, is whether or not the Royals will be able to re-sign Butler, either after 2014 or after the option year in 2015, if he does, in fact, start turning some of those doubles into homeruns at that time. If Butler hits .320/.385/.570 in 2015, the real question becomes whether or not the Royals will spend to keep him around, as opposed to whether or not they should trade him. But even if the Royals wait until then, to find out whether or not Butler will gain the HR stroke that many assume that he can, then is when his value is maximized. As much as you may think trading him now would maximize his return, you would be selling yourself desperately short on what Butler may become. If you wait 18 months, and Butler is still a .300/.360/.490 guy, you can realistically look at trading him to upgrade various areas of need without losing any value. If he amps it up over that time, then he has added value, He'd still be under contract for two seasons, plus the club option for a third. And headed into 2013 is when you can take a long, hard look at moving him to snag that last piece of the rotation, presumably along with a couple of legitimate prospects. If you don't need to move him, then you get the added benefit of seeing whether or not he can turn it on for real before the trade deadline of the 2015 season, and move him during those two-and-a-half seasons. Or, you could re-sign him.
So let's wait and see, shall we?
All information from Baseball Reference, Fangraphs, and Cot's Contracts.