On the day after the final game of the World Series, Dayton Moore met with Billy Butler at Kauffman Stadium. Moore came bearing news that became inevitable months before.
When Moore became the Royals general manager eight years ago, he identified pinpointed assets on the roster: Butler, Zack Greinke and Alex Gordon. The team traded Greinke in 2010 in the first masterstroke of a rebuilding effort. They could reach a long-term deal with Gordon before 2015 begins. The situation with Butler is far murkier.
When they talked on Thursday, Moore told Butler the team would not pick up his $12.5 million option for next season. Moore contacted Butler one more time on Saturday before the decision became official. After a decade in the Kansas City organization, Butler will enter free agency for the first time.
The move cannot be considered a surprise. Butler, the 28-year-old designated hitter, delivered the weakest offensive season of his career in 2014. He spent much of September on the bench before returning to the starting lineup for the team’s October run. Butler maintains his desire to stay with the Royals. But on Saturday he acknowledged the possibility he would leave the only franchise he has ever known.
“Hopefully the numbers work out,” Butler said. “Hopefully another team doesn’t come in and blow me out of the water with an offer. I guess that’s the spirit of them declining it, and other teams being in play. But I’m definitely a Royal at heart.”
Butler addressed reporters on a conference call arranged by the Royals, a relative rarity for a player approaching free agency. Both he and Moore characterized their conversations as encouraging. Moore told The Star the team would like to retain Butler, but it would have to be at a “more manageable” number than his proposed 2015 salary.
“We’re going to stay engaged,” Moore said in a telephone conversation on Saturday. “We’ve got to look for the opportunity to bring Billy back as part of our team. But not at one year, $12 million, obviously.”
Moore added, “Like any negotiations, there’s going to be ups and downs and twists and turns.”
Moore identified starting pitching as the team’s priority this winter. The team is expected to make a one-year, qualifying offer worth more than $15 million to James Shields on Monday, and they will monitor his free agency. But with Shields expected to sign elsewhere, Moore stressed the team sought financial flexibility. The Royals could pursue pitchers such as Brandon McCarthy or Ervin Santana as replacements.
As part of his contract, Butler received a $1 million buyout. He earned $8 million in 2014. Butler indicated he seeks a multi-year deal. The Royals may be comfortable with a two-year contract worth around $12 million to $16 million, according to people familiar with the situation.
Yet the team does desire roster flexibility. With Eric Hosmer installed at first base, Butler occupies the DH spot exclusively. The Royals would prefer to use that spot to help provide rest for players like outfielders Lorenzo Cain and Alex Gordon and catcher Salvador Perez.
A panacea does not exist in free agency. Outfielders Melky Cabrera and Nick Markakis could reside outside Kansas City’s financial range. A player such as Michael Morse offers more power than Butler, but is also limited in the field.
For his part, Butler believes he can handle a daily assignment at first base. He punched up an .819 on-base plus slugging percentage in 37 games as a first baseman this season. The team soared in August when Butler replaced an injured Hosmer in the field. “I feel like I showed everyone in the league I can play first base — and on a championship team,” he said.
August was one of Butler’s few productive months in 2014. He still finished with only nine homers, 66 RBI and a .702 OPS. Opposing pitchers handcuffed him with sinkers inside and offspeed pitches away. Butler looked incapable of adjusting to the sinister combination.
“It was definitely inconsistent from me, and definitely coming from a guy who’s been very consistent over the last eight years,” Butler said. “Those kind of seasons happen. I think if you play long enough, every player has a tough stretch or a tough year. That one year doesn’t define a player. And I think that’s the reason why Dayton would like me to come back, because he knows the type of player I am.”
When October began, his departure appeared a foregone conclusion. After Hosmer returned in September, he reclaimed first base and Butler was shunted aside for about a fortnight. He rode the bench until the final two weeks of the season. Reinstated into the lineup, he became a useful contributor during the team’s World Series run.
“Nobody wants to leave a championship team,” Butler said. “That makes the decision even tougher. I hope it doesn’t have to come to that.”
Butler represents a connection to a forgotten, forgettable era in franchise history. The team drafted him in 2004. He reached the majors as a 21-year-old three years later. He received resounding cheers as the team’s lone All-Star in the 2012 game at Kauffman Stadium. Even now, Kansas City fans still jeer Robinson Cano for snubbing Butler for the Home Run Derby.
Butler wove himself into the fabric of the city. He built a charity that contributed to Bishop Sullivan Center in Kansas City and donated the proceeds from his “Billy’s Hit It A Ton” barbecue sauce there. Before the final two games of the World Series, he lunched on ribs at Oklahoma Joe’s.
Now he must ponder a future in another city, in another uniform. The coming weeks will decide his fate.
“There’s no ill will toward the organization,” Butler said. “It’s a business decision. You can’t take it personal in this business. I hope everything works out, and I can return. With a decision like this, there’s always an option out there that it might not happen.”