The Royals have been one of baseball’s most active teams so far this offseason, first swinging a trade for Ervin Santana before re-signing Jeremy Guthrie. GM Dayton Moore has made no secret of his desire to improve a starting rotation that finished 26th in ERA (5.01), 25th in FIP (4.59), and 28th in innings (890.0) this season, and reports indicate that he’s willing to deal one of his young position players for a young, high-end arm. Alex Gordon, Mike Moustakas, and even Eric Hosmer have been floated as trade candidates, ditto Billy Butler.
Butler, 26, is a .300/.362/.468 (121 wRC+) career hitter in over 3,500 big league plate appearances. He enjoyed the best season of his career in 2012, hitting .313/.373/.510 (140 wRC+) with a career-high 29 homers and 3.2 WAR. That earned him his first All-Star Game nod and Silver Slugger. Butler’s biggest negative as a hitter is his propensity to hit the ball on the ground (career 47.2%), which has limited his power output (career .168 ISO) and makes him the mother of all double play candidates — he’s bounced into a twin-killing in 18% of his career opportunities, well-above the 11% MLB average.
As an overall player, Butler’s biggest drawback is that he simply doesn’t have a position. He’s started 549 of 648 possible games at DH over the last four seasons, and the various metrics rate him as an atrocious first baseman. We do have to acknowledge not only the sample size concerns (2953.2 career innings at first), but also the fact that defensive stats still don’t work to well with first basemen. Still, I think we can all agree defense has not been and never will be his strength.
Unfortunately, those shortcomings on the non-offense side of the game really limit Butler’s value both on the field and in trades. There have been just 25 3.0+ WAR seasons by a DH in the last decade, and six belong to David Ortiz. Travis Hafner (three), Jim Thome (two), and Jason Giambi (two) also make multiple appearances on the list, so it’s a rather exclusive club. On top of that, more and more clubs are starting to view the DH spot as an opportunity to rotate players. Unless we’re talking about an Ortiz or an in-his-prime Hafner, few clubs like to clog up the DH position with one set player.
That said, Butler is obviously a very good hitter. He’s also at a point in his career where you could expect him to still get better (particularly in the power department) or, at the very least, hold his current level of production for a few more seasons. Right-handed power — Butler has shown a platoon split in recent years but he’s still been above-average against righties — also tends to be at a premium, so that’s another feather in his cap. We also have to note his contract: Butler is signed through 2014 for $8 million annually with a $12.5 million club option ($1 million buyout) for 2015. It’s an affordable rate, even at DH, as long as he keeps hitting.
Now it does take two to tango. WAR tells us one thing about Butler’s value while what clubs are willing to give up for him in a trade tells us another. Few clubs have top shelf young pitching to spare, but the Mariners and Rays — both of whom have been connected to Butler in the not-too-distant past — both fit the bill. Tampa’s guys are more established at the big league level, which I’m sure is something Kansas City would value. Jeremy Hellickson‘s name has been floated in recent reports, for example.
The number of bat-first players to get traded with two guaranteed years left on their contract is pretty small, so our best trade comparison might actually be Hanley Ramirez. He compiled 7.5 WAR in the 2+ years prior to his trade (Butler is at 7.9 WAR over the last three years) and fetched a strong pitching prospect in return — Baseball America ranked Nate Eovaldi as the 96th best prospect in baseball prior to this season. There were other miscellaneous pieces in the deal (Randy Choate and Scott McGough), but Hanley-for-Eovaldi was the centerpiece.
Ramirez was a little older and much more expensive (owed $31.5 million over the next two years) than Butler at the time of his trade, but he also has multiple superstar-caliber seasons to his credit. It’s obviously an imperfect comparison, but these things always are. That a player with Ramirez’s track record was only able to fetch a borderline top-100 prospect doesn’t bode well for the Royals if they’re looking to deal Butler, who doesn’t have a position and really isn’t a bat-first guy. He’s a bat-only guy.
I think Guthrie is pretty underrated and Santana is a bounceback candidate, so the Royals have improved their rotation at least somewhat these last few weeks. If Moore wants to add a young high-upside arm to his rotation, using Butler as trade bait wouldn’t be his best plan of attack. Gordon would bring a much greater return given his contract and two-way game, plus Moustakas and Hosmer offer more upside and years of team control. A good DH is more of a luxury than a necessity these days, further limiting what already figures to be a limited trade market for Butler’s services.