The Royals hunt for a quality young starting pitcher is the worst kept secret in baseball. At various times over the last few weeks, the team has been rumored to be considering trading Wil Myers, Alex Gordon, Eric Hosmer, and Billy Butler in an effort to obtain a hiågh quality arm, preferably one with multiple years of team control and a bright future. Over the last few days, the rumors have shifted from primarily being about Myers to focusing more on Butler, with both the Mariners and Royals identified as potential fits based on their needs for offense and a potential ability to part with young pitching.
Personally, I don’t see much of a fit with Seattle, a team that already has a young right-handed DH in Jesus Montero. The Mariners also don’t really have the kind of Major League ready young arms that Kansas City is looking for in exchange, so while the theory might work, the teams don’t really line up in terms of exchangeable assets.
The Orioles are another story. After non-tendering Mark Reynolds, their best DH options on the roster are currently Wilson Betemit and Steve Pearce – not exactly the kind of firepower that a team with playoff aspirations is looking for. In terms of need at DH and desire to add an impact bat, there probably isn’t a better fit for Butler than Baltimore.
The question is more along the lines of what would go back to Kansas City in return. The Orioles have a significant amount of talented young pitchers, but they don’t have the kind of established Major League performer that the Royals seem to favor. Their best young arms — Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman — are still considered prospects, and their Major League young arms all come with significant question marks. However, given Butler’s actual trade value, perhaps that kind of unestablished big league arm is actually a worthy return.
Butler is a fine player and one of the better hitters in baseball, but it is impossible to ignore the fact that he is strictly a hitter. Butler’s made a grand total of 31 starts in the field over the last two years, and he’s only getting slower as he ages. He’s also an atrocious baserunner, coming in at -20 runs over the last three years, ranking better than only Ryan Howard and Paul Konerko who each come in at -22 runs in baserunning. David Ortiz and Prince Fielder have been equally as poor at advancing on opportunities, and together, they represent the Five Amigos of Slowness.
And we can’t just pretend that baserunning doesn’t matter. Butler has been on second base when a single was hit 107 times in his career, and he’s only scored 37% of the time – the league average last year was 58%. Butler has only gone first to third on a single 25 times in his career – Mike Trout did it 28 times last year alone. We can’t just look at the rate at which Butler gets on base and ignore the fact that fewer of those opportunities lead to runs. Yes, his 140 wRC+ in 2012 was pretty terrific, but that translates into about 33 runs above a league average hitter, and he gave back six of those runs simply by virtue of his lack of speed. When you adjust for baserunning, Butler’s total offensive performance was worth 28 runs more than an average hitter per 600 plate appearances.
The other MLB hitters between +25 and +30 in R/600 were Alex Gordon (+25), Adam Jones (+25), Alex Rios (+26), Yoenis Cespedes (+26), Shin-Soo Choo (+26), Jason Heyward (+26), Austin Jackson (+26), Torii Hunter (+27), Ben Zobrist (+28), and Aaron Hill (+30). All of them had great years, but you’ll note that every player on that list plays the field, and in many cases, they add real value on defense. How many of these guys would you be that excited to add if they were bat-only players? Do you view any of them as big time run producers? Would you be interested in paying a premium price to have them DH for your team?
In reality, Butler’s lack of speed and defensive value make him a +2 to +3 win player, depending on how much of his power spike he retains going forward and whether he can continue to play every game as he gets older and his body wears down. There’s certainly value in a durable +2 to +3 win player headed into his age-27 season, but given that he’s already signed through 2015 for a total of around $30 million — a figure that goes up if he’s traded and could increase based on his performance incentives — he’s not the kind of underpriced core player that should command a premium return.
And that’s why I think the Royals should strongly consider a deal with Baltimore. On the surface, Chris Tillman might seem to be an underwhelming return for an All-Star, but if you see Butler as a +3 win player on a contract that pays him like a +2 win player, then a deal built around Butler-for-Tillman isn’t so nutty. Tillman shouldn’t be viewed as any kind of future ace, but his velocity spike and improvement last year show that he has the chance to turn into a +2 win starter in the near future, and he’s set to make the league minimum for the next two years, then has three arbitration eligible seasons before he hits free agency.
Swapping Butler for Tillman gives the Royals an interesting young addition to their rotation while simultaneously freeing up $8 million in 2013 payroll and $20 to $22 million in future commitments, which could then be spent on a hitter to replace the newly departed DH. For instance, the Royals could reallocate Butler’s money to a guy like Adam LaRoche and essentially have both LaRoche and Tillman for something close to the same price that they could have just Butler.
The Royals shouldn’t just be looking to dump Billy Butler, but the reality is that moving his salary off the books gives them the financial flexibility to add another Major League player who can help them in 2013. The player they get in return doesn’t have to replace Butler by himself, and the Royals could likely get a better overall value from turning Butler into a league minimum pitcher and then using the saved money to replace Butler’s bat with a worse-but-still useful 1B/DH type.
And, unfortunately for Kansas City, the market for Butler is unlikely to ever be all that fierce. As a DH only, there will always be a limited market for his services, and he’s only getting more expensive in the future. Rather than giving up a piece like Myers, who could fill a big hole on the roster for years to come, moving Butler for a pitcher like Tillman could be the Royals best way to add a young arm to the rotation without sacrificing the organization’s future.