Before he placed ink to paper, before he ended his decade as a Kansas City Royal, Billy Butler made sure to exhaust all efforts to remain with the only professional employer he had ever known.
“We gave them a chance,” Butler said. “We let the Royals know.”
They received the message. The front office of Royals general manager Dayton Moore lacked interest from both a financial and philosophical perspective. Moore conceded on Wednesday he was “given every opportunity” to top the three-year, $30 million contract Butler took with Oakland. But as the Royals reload and attempt to return to the World Series, the club decided to part ways with their long-tenured designated hitter.
Even after Butler produced his worst offensive season since debuting in 2007, the Royals maintained hope for a reunion. But their attention looked tepid in comparison with the Athletics. Butler’s new team practiced aggression, contacted him early in the process and delivered with an offer that stunned Royals officials and rival evaluators alike after he finished 2014 with only nine home runs and a career-low .702 on-base plus slugging percentage.
The situation managed to boost Butler’s bank account while still harming his feelings. He found the scenario bittersweet. The Royals selected him in the first round of the 2004 draft. He suffered through six losing seasons, with 92 defeats per year, before the breakthrough of 2013 and the triumphs of 2014. He is still only 28, and feels his finest years may reside in his future. He deemed the Royals a franchise on the cusp of sustained success — and yet they chose to embark on that course without him.
“It really dampens it for me a little bit,” he said. “We got to the top, and now I’m gone. I’m glad I got to see it through this year.”
He added, “It hurts a little bit that I’m not going to see the rest of it. But I’m on to a new chapter.”
Butler ends his tenure in Kansas City as one of the most decorated hitters in franchise history. His lack of production during the long summer of 2014 vexed teammates and manager Ned Yost, but his place inside the clubhouse hierarchy was secure. He served as the garrulous yin to Alex Gordon’s stoic yang. The duo represented the veteran core on a roster that team officials believe matured during the playoff run.
On Wednesday afternoon, soon after Oakland announced Butler had passed his physical and finalized the contract, Davis Glass arrived at the InterContinental Hotel near the Plaza for the quarterly owners meetings. He expressed his affection for Butler and said the team would miss him. But he admitted Butler no longer fit the club’s model, both on the field and in their financial ledger.
“It’s probably the right thing for both of us,” Glass said. “I think a fresh start will do Billy a lot of good. And I think that Dayton and Ned want to go a little different route. I think it’s the best of all worlds.”
As Butler suffered through a season-long slump, his departure from Kansas City looked like a fait accompli. Butler resurrected the possibility by contributing in the final weeks of September and into October. The Royals still declined a $12.5 million team option on him for 2015, which netted Butler a $1 million buyout.
“I thought we would have a chance to bring Billy back,” Moore said. “When we did decline the option, I felt that there was a strong opportunity. But the way the market is, obviously, it’s unpredictable. It just takes one team to blow you out of the water.”
The Royals would not be that team, not for Butler, not as they endeavor to increase their offensive flexibility. His presence clogged their roster at times in 2014, forcing them to often play without a qualified middle infielder. In the future, Moore envisions the designated hitter to be rotated rather than have the position weighed down by one single player.
Yet the team still needs to acquire hitters. Their search for Butler’s replacement, and for a new right fielder, continues in earnest.
Over the weekend, team officials conducted a two-day workout in the Dominican Republic with Cuban slugger Yasmany Tomas, a 24-year-old outfielder. Tomas is expected to command a contract larger than Rusney Castillo’s $72.5 million pact with Boston. Never before have the Royals doled out a deal worth that much.
The free-agent market also features more affordable alternatives. The Royals remain involved in discussions with 39-year-old veteran Torii Hunter, according to people familiar with the situation. CBS Sports named the Royals and Hunter’s former club in Minnesota as the two prime suitors for his services. Hunter could split time in the field and at DH with an in-house choice like Carlos Peguero.
Peguero turns 28 in February. He is out of minor-league options. In his first season in the Royals system, he smashed 30 homers for Class AAA Omaha, including a 15-bomb binge in August. He received a call-up for September, but languished on the bench after striking out twice in a game at Yankee Stadium. Peguero has played in just six big-league games since 2012.
Royals officials sense great potential in Peguero, a 6-foot-5, 250-pound behemoth from Venezuela, but also a good deal of risk. In order to unlock his ability, team officials feel they would have to guarantee Peguero a sizable chunk of at-bats and not reduce his playing time. It is unclear if a team attempting to return to the World Series can conduct such an experiment with an everyday player.
The Royals do seek more moving parts for a lineup that was often quite rigid. Eric Hosmer rarely required a day off at first base, which kept Butler away from the defensive action. Rival evaluators, along with Butler himself, wondered how that hampered his hitting.
The Athletics intend to start Butler at first base against left-handed pitchers, Oakland general manager Billy Beane said. After Hosmer debuted in 2011, Butler longed to play in the field more. He flourished in August with Hosmer on the disabled list. Butler posted an .818 OPS as a first baseman and a .642 OPS as a designated hitter. He believed the fielding kept his body loose and reduced his torment after failed at-bats.
There were plenty to lament in 2014. Pitchers overwhelmed Butler with a diet of inside fastballs and offspeed pitches away. Butler abandoned his patient approach and hacked at both, producing an endless slew of groundballs. To Beane, the regression in 2014 pushed Butler into Oakland’s price range.
“Not very often do you get free agents who are sort of in their prime of their career that still have some upside,” Beane said. “He shouldn’t be a guy, at least physically, who’s on the downside of his career.”
Butler feels the same way. The Royals did not disagree, not precisely. But team officials worried if Butler had crossed over the wrong side of aging curve. In 2014 his OPS fell 180 points below his high watermark of .882 just two years prior. The Royals considered a three-year commitment far too lengthy of a gamble.
During the summer of 2012, Butler was the lone Royals representative at the All-Star Game in Kansas City. The stands at Kauffman Stadium thundered his name. The spectacle would repeat itself this past October. He loved this town, he said. He never wanted to leave.
“The fans have been tremendous to me,” Butler said. “I gave them everything I got. I’ve got nothing to be ashamed of. I’m really proud to have been a Royal.”