For his final act on a day that his manager called the start of “something a little different,” Billy Butler fielded a grounder, stomped on first base and lumbered back to the Royals’ dugout. He had just completed five innings in the field, playing a position that team officials hope he frequents more often in 2014.
When Butler reported to camp a few weeks ago, manager Ned Yost instructed him to practice more at first base than he had in previous years. Butler has responded by “working as hard as I’ve ever seen him over there,” Yost said.
“He wants to have flexibility,” Butler said after Monday’s 9-7 loss to the White Sox. “I’m here to show him I can do. Days like today definitely give him confidence in me.”
For Butler, the highlight occurred in the fourth inning. He scooped a grounder hit by speedy outfielder Jordan Danks, relayed to second for one out and made it back to the bag in time for the double play. The play brought a smile to Yost’s face.
Butler appeared in seven games as a first baseman in 2013. Yost hopes to increase that number, in part to spell Eric Hosmer during the summer, and in part to use the designated-hitter spot as a rest stop for Alex Gordon or Salvador Perez or others.
“I want to try to give him as much opportunity to play over there as I can,” Yost said of Butler.
The gain can be twofold. It would improve the flexibility of Yost’s roster for this season. And if Butler is competent at first, Yost can use the DH spot to give his players extra rest, a trend that has swept the American League.
Looking down the road, Butler could boost his value. The Royals hold a $12.5 million option on Butler for 2015. For a club that just crossed the $90 million payroll threshold this season, that sum is sizable. After this season, they could try to flip him to diversify their roster, especially as free-agency approaches.
During the offseason, Butler’s name surfaced in trade discussions, although the Royals did not actively try to deal him, according to people familiar with the matter. But the team did pursue Carlos Beltran, a 36-year-old outfielder with a pair of surgically repaired knees, understanding he may require days at the DH spot.
The acquisition of Beltran could have increased Butler’s availability, except Butler possesses value only for American League teams. Butler is an excellent hitter, if a notch below the game’s upper-echelon performers. But his speed is negligible, and his defense is suspect.
One American League executive, who stressed he “loved” Butler as a player, conceded his defense was a weakness.
“He’ll catch what he can get to,” the executive said — a backhanded compliment for a player with limited mobility.
During 2009 and 2010, Butler’s two full seasons as a first baseman before Hosmer’s arrival, he was nine runs below average, according to Ultimate Zone Rating, an advanced metric that measures a player’s range in the field.
Butler won’t turn 28 until next month, and he intends to extend his career. He finished 2013 with a .787 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, his lowest since 2008.
During the winter, Butler said, he focused on his fitness. Workouts occurred six or seven times a week. He ran and stressed improving his flexibility.
If Butler is passable in the field, the Royals will take it.
“I feel like my agility’s a lot better,” Butler said. “I’m never going to run well. But I can be a little bit more agile, a little bit more athletic. It’s not going to hurt.”