Billy Butler swung a pair of Mariucci bats inside the visitors’ clubhouse at Fenway Park, rotating the lumber from hand to hand, pondering the factors behind his first-half torment.
“Some years, you just have a down year,” said Butler, the Royals’ designated hitter. “And you feel the same. For whatever reason, it just happens. I’m not saying you’re any less of a player than you were.
“My bat speed’s still there. I get to certain pitches. I mean, these shifts are messing with me, too. I hit balls up the middle, and they get to them. They used to be hits. When I came up, there were no shifts!”
Butler was smiling. The worst offensive season of his career has not dented his confidence, and has not blemished his faith in his ability. He understands the Royals face a decision on his contract after this season, with a $12.5 million team option that appears unlikely to be picked up.
But in Butler’s view, when it comes to that option, his .811 career on-base plus slugging percentage should outweigh his .679 OPS in 2014.
“My numbers throughout my contract suggest they should (pick it up),” Butler said. “Maybe not the way I’ve necessarily played this year, but that’s the reason you play a full 162 games. The evaluation is there. That’s the reason why you have a track record.
“If you want to go off 90-something games, you can say, ‘yeah, it’s not justified.’ If you want to go off of other ones, yeah, it probably is. It’s all how you want to look at it.”
At 28, Butler continued, “my best years are still ahead of me,” and he insisted he would like to spend the rest of his career as a Royal. Which is why, if Kansas City does not intend to pick up the option, he said he would be willing to renegotiate an extension at a lower rate than $12.5 million per season.
“I’ve been in the organization for 10 years, and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it,” he said. “I’d like stay here and win something. It’s not my decision.”
It is unclear how Butler fits into the organization’s long-term plans. It is unclear if he will even finish the season with the Royals. Butler spent his All-Star break on Cape Cod, with trade rumors swirling around him. The talk is still light, as the prospective of a deal is still considered unlikely, but ESPN reported there have been preliminary discussions between the Royals and Seattle.
The Mariners have coveted Butler for years, and were one of the teams who engaged with general manager Dayton Moore about Butler last winter. The Royals entertained the idea, especially as they pursued free-agent veteran Carlos Beltran, but ultimately stuck with Butler.
“If we’re giving up Billy Butler, we need to get back a player who can bat fourth in our lineup,” one club official said this past spring, when reminiscing on the reasons for keeping him.
But Butler no longer bats fourth for the Royals. He has fallen to sixth in the order, and followed up an encouraging .811 OPS in June with an immediate downturn in the final two weeks before the break. So the Royals must ponder if they can improve their club by flipping Butler, rather than just letting him depart in free agency without compensation this winter.
A few factors reduce the possibility of a trade. Butler’s own performance has decimated his value — few rival clubs are likely to part with major assets for a player who has struggled so much this season. The Royals also lack a viable replacement at designated hitter, as Raul Ibañez has shown little evidence of revival thus far.
At this point in the season, Butler explained there was little reason to discuss his future with his employers. His role is to produce at the plate. In the next few months, the situation will be sorted out.
“They might want me to still be a Royal, and I might still want to be a Royal,” Butler said. “It might just not be in the cards. I might not fit into their future plans. I’ll fit in somebody’s future. But I don’t know where, if it’s not here.”