Sam Mellinger

Hurdles remain, but Royals coming around to idea of Billy Butler at DH in 2015

Billy Butler doubled in the second inning of World Series game six, giving the Royals a 7-0 lead in an eventual 10-0 victory.
Billy Butler doubled in the second inning of World Series game six, giving the Royals a 7-0 lead in an eventual 10-0 victory. The Kansas City Star

They wanted to trade him three months ago, and when that didn’t work, they all agreed that Billy Butler would almost certainly be gone after the season. Then they had to rely on him, and when that did work, they began to rethink a divorce that had been all but official.

Now, after the Royals made it all the way to game seven of the World Series, they’ve begun considering the realistic alternatives and find themselves in a genuine state of uncertainty about what to do with the man who’s been in their organization longer than any other player.

Three months ago, the idea that Butler would return to the Royals in 2015 was laughable. Today, the possibility is a wonderful example of how quickly things change in baseball.

The Royals declined Butler’s $12.5 million option for 2015. That was a move everyone involved knew was coming, making Butler a free agent for the first time in his life. Butler has been open about his desire to return to Kansas City, taking the rare step of telling reporters during the season that he’d take a paycut to do it.

Butler’s return would depend on a long domino line of circumstances that makes handicapping such a thing little more than a guessing game, so it makes sense that club officials have gone vague when asked how likely it is in recent days and weeks.

The most obvious sticking point is that the Royals would need to be convinced that he’s their best option, and for the right price. Part of that is made more realistic in a market where every option is flawed or over-priced or both.

Michael Morse, for instance, has some power but is also four years older than Butler, a butcher defensively, and strikes out nearly four times for every walk. Melky Cabrera just turned down a $15 million qualifying offer, is also subpar defensively, and in the last two years has had a back tumor and drug suspension.

Besides all of that, the Royals would need to be comfortable that Butler would be both happy and productive making less money than he feels he’s worth and playing less than he’s accustomed.

The Royals have, for years, envisioned opening the DH spot to give Alex Gordon (who turns 31 in February) and Salvador Perez (who started 158 games at catcher and faded offensively after the All-Star break) some rest while keeping them in the lineup.

Butler’s not going to play first base over Eric Hosmer, so including interleague games in National League parks, this could be 30 or so days where he’s not in the lineup. He’s only missed 28 games total over the last six years.

The final, and perhaps most important, piece to all of this is a decision that Butler must look at as both personal and business.

Butler would not be the first or last big-league player to talk about taking less money before signing for the most money possible. Just a hypothetical example here, but would he really sign for two years and $16 million to make 130 or so starts for the Royals instead of two years and $18 million to play every day for the Mariners?

That the Royals will play next year with an American League champions flag waving on top of the Hall of Fame building is an argument for continuity. On Wednesday, for instance, Moore said he’s not in a hurry to break up the back end of the bullpen. He left this part out, but he said those words knowing the collective cost of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland is likely to jump from $10 million in 2014 to around $17.5 million in 2015.

Butler certainly had his moments in the playoffs, too. He drove in two runs — including a key single in the eighth-inning rally — in the Wild Card Game. He also had two RBI singles and a curtain call in game two of the World Series.

But it’s always been about production with Butler. He’s never been talked about as a leader, and the way manager Ned Yost benched and moved him down in the lineup without always extending the courtesy of a conversation bothered Butler (and others).

Some scouts had talked about diminishing bat speed with Butler, but internally, the Royals always thought he was just trying to do too much. This led to him chasing pitches he usually spit on, which led to pitchers knowing they had a bigger strike zone, which led to easier and often quicker outs.

The Royals’ — and, as it turned out, Butler’s — season hit a crossroads at the end of July. The team had been trying to trade Butler, in part to free up payroll to make a move for some offensive help, but found no market. A few hours after the non-waiver trade deadline on July 31, Eric Hosmer broke his hand. Before that, Butler had been the DH and hitting sixth or seventh. After that, he played first base and hit cleanup.

From Butler to his teammates and coaches and team executives, nobody believes it’s a coincidence that his production took off after that. It seemed to unlock something in his mind, where instead of watching video of every pitch for 45 minutes between at-bats, he was in the field, his thoughts more engaged on the game. He laid off pitches he had been swinging at, particularly balls off the plate inside, which meant better at-bats and more of those hard line drives he’s hit so often with the Royals.

Compare his August as the team’s everyday first baseman and cleanup hitter to his July as the DH and No. 6 hitter: he hit 32 points higher, increased his on-base percentage by 54 points and his slugging by 55 points while driving in more than twice as many runs.

The Royals went 19-10 in August, erasing what had been as much as an eight-game hole in the division on July 21 and taking a three-game lead in the division on Aug. 23. Overall, Butler managed just a .667 on-base-plus-slugging percentage over the Royals’ first 100 games and a .770 OPS over the last 62.

You could say this about many of his teammates, too, but the Royals likely would not have made the playoffs without those specific contributions from Butler.

His defense, while certainly not as good as the now two-time Gold Glove winning Hosmer, was good enough that teams can now view Butler as at least playable at first base.

In a strange way, that may actually make it less likely that he plays for the Royals next year. He’s more marketable to more teams now, which can only drive his price up. The Royals are set at first base, and would be looking to Butler as a DH who might sit 30 games. Other teams may be looking at him as an everyday player in the middle of the lineup.

Back in spring training, it was said to a club official that Butler did not fit the rest of the team going forward. The official’s response: “if he hits 30 home runs, he fits.”

That didn’t happen, obviously. Butler’s production slipped for a second consecutive season, and his .702 OPS ranked fifth on a team that expected to be better offensively.

There is still a chance Butler fits into the Royals’ future, though it would be with a smaller role and salary than both sides figured as recently as two years ago. That the chance exists at all, however, is a testament to how quickly things can change in baseball.

The Royals may realize that their best option is to sign an eight-figure contract with a player they couldn’t give away three months ago.

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365 or send email to smellinger@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter: @mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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