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The Case for Trading Billy Butler

I've wanted and not wanted to write this blog post for some time. I do think, for the reasons to be elucidated below, that the Royals should consider trading Billy Butler. However, because much of his game is tied to doubles and a decent OBP, Butler is precisely the kind of player that statheads defend against the attacks of fans who see, in Butler's case, surprisingly low home run totals and too many double plays. Like many fans, yes, I'm disappointed that Butler hasn't yet become an offensive machine along the lines of Manny Ramirez or Jim Thome. But those are high standards and despite being a precocious player, he's never reached an elite level. He's never been part of the problem either. Butler's been around for many years now and seems like a genial enough fellow. It would be cool if he could be part of the next good Royals team. I'm just no longer sure it is in the best interest of the Royals to be committed to him.

Butler's name has not surfaced in the numerous Royals trade rumors we've heard this summer. If the Royals aren't considering or even actively shopping Butler, I think they're making a mistake. So, without further preface, here is a devil's advocate case for trading Billy Butler. I have tried to think about Butler not as a fan of the Royals, but how I would see him if I was, say, a Tigers fan.

  • This is as good as he's going to be: Butler posted an OPS+ of 125 in 2009, a major improvement from his previous performances. Unfortunately, he's been unable to move to the next level in the last two seasons. His power numbers have mysteriously stagnated, actually dropping slightly from his 2009 performance. Butler -- and we've been writing this for literally years now -- is still young (he'll be 26 next season) but at this point he's now accumulated 2861 Major League PAs. A power spike is really the only way he can get better. He might randomly post a high batting average at some point, but in terms of long run development, he's got to show more power, which will also lead to more walks. There's no reason to expect that that will happen. Butler has hit more ground balls than the league average since he entered the Majors, and while he's whittled around that number to 46%, even if he gets down another four or five percent (a pretty large accomplishment) he's still going to merely be average, hindering true breakout power. Any modest power improvement is also likely to coincide with a natural decline in his batting average, a huge part of his game.
  • As a DH/1B Butler simply isn't that special: When you have no positional value you have to be a very good hitter to make an impact, and thus far, Butler hasn't hit at that level. Butler was worth just 1.8 fWAR last season, 6th best in the American League among DHs. (bWAR had him at 2.4) His wOBA of .351 was 27th in the AL amongst all players with 300 PAs or more. In terms of wOBA, his most comparable player in 2011 was Josh Willingham, but Willingham can at least stand out in the outfield.
  • As an exclusive DH Butler is hurting the team's roster flexibility: Now that Eric Hosmer is established at 1B, the Royals have the two easiest positions on the roster to fill, 1B & DH completely locked down. Because of this, the Royals have very little room to further improve the offense, especially given that Alex Gordon, Jeff Francoeur, and Mike Moustakas are also seemingly locked into their positions. Upgrading the defense is similarly complicated. If Butler was a better hitter, an elite hitter, you could live with these complications. Is he worth the trouble as a 125 OPS guy with negative baserunning value? Butler forbids the Royals from giving Hosmer or Moose a soft landing as a sometime DH, blocks the position as a way to rest the outfielders, and prevents the Royals from finding a solution if one of the corner guys struggles defensively. Butler is a nice guy with a nickname who happens to make it very difficult to upgrade either the offense or defense of this roster.
  • Butler is only moderately priced: 2011 was Butler's last bargain season. He'll earn $8 million from 2012-2014, and like so many Dayton Moore contracts, this isn't a terrible price, but it isn't a good one. For a team like the Royals, paying close to market rate doesn't really do them much good. It isn't necessarily a problem for 2012, but as we move further into the decades, prices will continue to escalate. Paying Butler and Francoeur $14-15 million to get you around 4 wins a season isn't something they're going to write a book chapter about some day.
  • All of this is assuming that Billy Butler is not an elite, mega-hitter, waiting to flower. It's like prospect talk: sure, there's a small chance that this player will emerge as an All-Star or even a Hall of Famer. So sure, Butler could be headed towards a massively productive peak. We're not talking about Mitch Maier or Christian Colon here. But how likely is that?

    The Royals are in a tough position. As a small market team, they need some long-odds bets to payoff. Obviously, trading Butler and then watching him blow up would be devastating to the Royals. But you can't manage a team based on fear. Butler is a nice player for the Royals, but he isn't pushing them to a championship right now. If Eric Hosmer was an outfielder, this might be a different discussion, but he's not. And as such, Butler is just short of being in the way. He's not there yet, but he's closer than you think.

    So we come to a rather obvious and not so bold position, but one that nevertheless no one is making: the Royals should be shopping Butler