Sam Mellinger

Billy Butler and the Royals and a mutually beneficial breakup

Billy Butler revved it up after stealing second against the Los Angeles Angels in the ALDS.
Billy Butler revved it up after stealing second against the Los Angeles Angels in the ALDS. The Kansas City Star

This is a good day for Billy Butler.

He officially has a contract with a winning organization, the Oakland A’s, that will pay him $30 million over the next three years. It’s a remarkable deal for a designated hitter whose offensive production has slipped in each of the last two years, from one of the game’s best young right-handed hitters to five percent below league average.

Butler is still a talented, dedicated, and proud hitter. He is with an organization that believes in him. He’ll play every day, which is really what he’s always wanted.

This is a good day for the Royals, too.

There were always going to be mixed emotions and thoughts in watching the man who’s played in their system longer than anyone else walk away. The Royals just had their most successful season since 1985, a joyride that took them all the way to the seventh game of the World Series. A city’s belief is restored, and there is a roster full of guys critical to this rebirth.

Butler had his turn, of course, and it might have been more dramatic than any of his teammates. He had the worst season of his career, bad enough that his manager dropped him in the lineup and benched him without so much as a word. He was booed at home, by fans of the only organization he’d ever known. The Royals tried to trade him at the July 31 deadline, but found no market.

That’s when Butler saved their season. Hours after the deadline, Eric Hosmer aggravated a hand injury. He had been the Royals’ best hitter, and he would be out a month. Butler had been the team’s most disappointing hitter, and has always been bad defensively, but the Royals were out of options. Butler played every day, and he was fantastic — .300 with 10 extra-base hits over the next month, basically his old, line drive spraying self again.

Something seemed to click with Butler that month. He never quite regained his 2012 form, but he was a problem in the lineup for opposing pitchers, which is what the Royals needed. He drove in the Royals’ first run in the Wild Card Game, and then another in the eighth-inning rally. Only Hosmer and Alex Gordon had more RBIs in the playoffs.

So it was always going to be tough to watch Butler sign somewhere else. The Royals paid $1 million to get out of a $12.5 million option for Butler in 2015, but had become more and more open to signing Butler for next year and beyond.

That was mostly because he hit so much better, but also because club officials started to consider the other options more closely. Like Butler, they all have flaws.

But for years, it has been glaringly obvious that Butler did not fit the way that general manager Dayton Moore wanted to build a team. Moore has prioritized speed, athleticism and defense. It’s hard to come up with a good player with less speed, athleticism or defensive value than Butler.

The Royals have also long wanted to open the DH spot to give regular position players a sort of half-day’s rest without taking their bat out of the lineup. That’s even more important now and going forward, with Sal Perez showing how his offensive production slumps with overuse, and Alex Gordon turning 31 in February.

So this is really the best outcome for both the Royals and Butler. For the player, he gets a contract larger than most industry insiders figured, and with a team that expects to win every year and will play him every day. He walks away from the organization that drafted him and made him rich with a hero’s farewell, those last three months of joy covering what had been a painful season.

For the Royals, they move closer to what they want to be. They get faster, more athletic, and maybe now manager Ned Yost will be more inclined to give Perez a few days off from catching.

They walk away from Butler guilt-free. He was always going to give the Royals a chance to match any offer, and the Royals would’ve had a tough decision to make if he’d come back with something in the neighborhood of two years and $18 million.

But this is an easy decision for both team and player. Butler had to sign the deal, and the Royals had to pass. Both sides are better off, and by virtue of those last three thrilling months, will always look back on their time together fondly.

The first time the A’s and Royals play next year, it will be strange seeing Butler in green instead of blue. Before the game, he will talk to old friends and laugh at old memories. The Royals will likely present him with the American League championship ring he helped win. It will be a nice moment.

Divorces are rarely this amicable.

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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