The Royals have a hole at designated hitter with Kendrys Morales departing for Toronto, and ideally they need to fill that hole cheaply. The Royals are talking about cutting payroll, and they already have financial obligations that take them beyond the $144 million they spent on player personnel last year.
Maybe they should think about bringing back Billy Butler?
Now hear me out. I know Billy Butler does not have the best reputation in Kansas City right now after struggling mightily in his last two seasons here and leaving for a three-year deal in Oakland. His struggles continued on the West Coast and he was let go this summer, finishing the season with the Yankees, but now finding himself a free agent once again.
But the first reason they should consider bringing him back is cost. Billy Butler will be dirt cheap. The Oakland Athletics are still paying him nearly $10 million next year, any team that signs him only needs to pay the league minimum. At the very least, the Royals could bring Billy in, and if he flat out stinks, they can let him go without costing themselves much money at all.
However, there is the possibility that Billy Butler, if effectively used, could be a valuable contributor. Despite his disappearing power, he is still a decent hitter at getting on base. In 274 plate appearances last year, he posted an on-base percentage of .336, which would have been higher than anyone on the Royals except Lorenzo Cain and Jarrod Dyson. His 8.3% walk rate over the past two seasons would have been fourth on the team, just behind Alex Gordon, Eric Hosmer, and Kendrys Morales. And he draws free passes without whiffing, his 15.3% strikeout rate last year was lower than anyone on the Royals except Dyson and Alcides Escobar.
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In fact, if you look at OPS+, which accounts for ballpark, Billy matched Kendrys Morales in hitting with an OPS+ of 108, or 8% better than the league average. Billy showed an ability to hit away from Oakland Coliseum last year, hitting .322/.366/.479 in 50 games on the road, although he had a reverse split in 2015. He finished the season strong, hitting .320/.380/.459 over his last 45 games. He might be a decent platoon partner with some of the left-handed bats in Kansas City’s lineup, as his numbers against lefties are slightly better than his numbers against righties.
Butler is still just 30 years old, in what should still be his prime. The projection system Steamer likes him as a bet to bounce back, predicting a line of .273/.343/.424 next year. If he can match those numbers, he would be a decent, albeit not great, designated hitter.
However I won’t pretend that Billy Butler is some sure bet to be good next year. The Oakland Athletics released him for good reason. Only five first basemen had a lower ISO than Billy Butler last year. He was one of the worst baserunners in baseball last year. There is his issue with hitting into double plays, although his ground-ball rate fell dramatically last year.
Then there is perhaps the biggest elephant in the room - the clubhouse. Butler was released from Oakland, in part because of performance, but also because of a clubhouse incident with teammate Danny Valencia. That fracas recalled memories of Butler being an abrasive teammate in his time in Kansas City.
I will leave it to the Royals to decide if they think their clubhouse could re-absorb Billy Butler again. The Royals were able to win a pennant with him in the clubhouse, maybe their team chemistry is strong with leaders that can put Billy in his place. Perhaps being released has humbled him.
Or maybe he’ll continue to be a nuisance whose hitting isn’t worth the trouble. The biggest argument for bringing in Butler is that he’s cheap, and maybe he’ll be okayish enough that they can use their limited resources to address other needs, namely starting pitching and the bullpen. But the Royals may decide it is just too risky.
I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for Billy Butler, the man we defended so vigorously at the 2012 Home Run Derby, who gave us one of the best moments in the 2014 playoffs when he stole second against the Angels. It would be nice to see him back with the Royals, being a productive hitter again. And maybe the Royals should think about a reunion. But I won’t count on it.