The last thing this eight-years-in-the-Processing Royals season needs is drama, but here it is anyway. One of the team’s highest-paid and longest-tenured players feels singled out and is going passive-aggressive to make his point and subtly call out a teammate.
Ego and self-interest are on both sides of this, team and player each having legitimate beef. Billy Butler justifiably sees himself as the club’s most established hitter, and wonders why he’s been occasionally benched and now moved down in the lineup for the second time while Eric Hosmer appears to have birthrights to the top of the batting order every day.
The truth is that Hosmer’s spot in the lineup is being evaluated, but for now, the team sees Butler as an underperforming and now overpaid hitter on a roster in desperate need of consistent production, exposing an ego that’s always simmered just beneath the surface.
Ned Yost has final say on the lineup, which is put together with the input of the coaches and front office, including sabermetric specialists. None of them would say it publicly, but moving Butler down in the lineup while keeping Hosmer higher is as clear a sign as the team can give that — track record or not — they have more faith in Hosmer reaching his potential than in Butler regaining his past.
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This is not what Butler or the Royals wanted to happen in what is effectively his contract year.
For Butler, he must know there is little chance the Royals will pick up a $12.5 million option for next season. He is a full-time designated hitter in a modern baseball world that no longer values full-time DHs, and is having his worst career year at the worst possible time.
For the Royals, they are let down by the hitter they’ve always viewed as their most reliable, an unforeseen problem in a season in which they can’t afford unforeseen problems. The club has always viewed its best future without Butler clogging the DH spot and is slowly taking steps to embrace that future sooner than later.
This is all a dramatic shift for a player and team that once seemed such a good match. Two years ago next week, fans here made a national spectacle of booing Robinson Cano for not picking Butler to the Home Run Derby. Several long and loud ovations for Butler during All-Star week left an impression, too.
“The way the people of Kansas City treated me on those nights made me want to run through a brick wall for this city,” he said last spring about the memory.
All other things equal, Butler is a great fit for Kansas City. He was the rare homegrown star from the sad pre-2006 era, so excited to be drafted in the first round that he signed below the going rate almost immediately. He married a nice girl he met during his first stop in the minor leagues, and she’s helped him become one of the city’s most charitable athletes, helping feed Kansas City’s hungry through the Bishop Sullivan Center.
Even before reaching the big leagues, Butler talked openly of how Kansas City was the type of place he would like to stay his entire career. He was among the first to sign a long-term extension with the Royals. Kauffman Stadium’s big gaps and long fences fit his line-drive tendencies, and Kansas City’s slower ways fit his Country Breakfast style.
But all things are not equal, of course, and no matter the other stuff, these things are always about production. Kansas City is no different than anywhere else in that way, a town that cheered Andre Rison and booed Mike Sweeney.
The rub of it is that the Royals need to keep Butler productive if not entirely happy, because the organization still considers him vital to whether the team can take advantage of its best chance at the playoffs in a generation. Perhaps even more than Hosmer.
During the 10-game win streak that changed the scope of the season, Butler hit .389 with five extra-base hits and 10 RBIs. In June, the Royals went 17-10 with Butler going for an .811 on-base-plus slugging percentage. Over the same stretch, Hosmer’s OPS was .532.
So by now, even with both sides understanding they are likely breaking up at the end of the year, both sides also understand their mutual dependence. The Royals need Butler hitting to win, and Butler needs opportunities in the lineup to hit. Neither team nor player expected to be in this situation, but as much as any sport baseball is about adjusting to surprises.
For now, the drama is not holding the team back but is a growing conversation point among rival evaluators.
Butler hasn’t always had a heads up when he was demoted or omitted from the lineup, a common courtesy for veteran players of a certain stature. Yost and the coaching staff failed him there, but Butler needs to be mature enough to handle it better.
Neither team nor player can fully succeed without the other, and in a season that each side has spent so much time working toward, ultimate success will depend heavily on recognizing that simple fact.
Butler and the Royals have been united for too long to let their last and most important season together be affected by any unnecessary drama.