A Few Words on Billy Butler
The Mariners keep getting linked to Royals DH Billy Butler, because the Mariners are looking for offensive improvements and the Royals are shopping for pitching. So, let’s just say a few words about Billy Butler.
The basics: he’s a 27-year-old DH who is under team control for the next three seasons. The original contract called for him to make $8 million in base salary for each of the next two years, then a $12.5 million team option for 2015, but there are unspecified incentives in the deal that push the 2015 option up to $14.5 million. Additionally, there’s an “assignment bonus” that gets added on if he’s traded, so the actual cost to the M’s would probably be something along the lines of 3/33.
For a +3ish win player, that’s a decent enough price. But it’s not the kind of huge bargain that should require a huge haul of young players in order to acquire him. Mike Napoli, for instance, just signed for 3/39 today, and offered the similar idea of a right-handed 1B/DH upgrade, but also offered the flexibility to catch part-time. Maybe you’d prefer Butler to some degree because he’s younger and his more recent performance is better, but there’s not a huge gap here, and clearly the market for these limited defensive players is limited by the fact that they can only sign with AL teams. Toss in the AL teams that aren’t shopping for a designated hitter, and even the best DH has a pretty limited market value, given the paucity of teams who are in the market for bat-only players.
And that’s one of the reasons I’m not overly interested in paying a high price in talent to acquire Butler. Yes, he’d instantly give the team a terrific hitter who could slot into the middle of the line-up, and people would tell you about how having that kind of guy changes a line-up and takes the pressure off the young kids, allowing them to develop at a better rate.
But, you know who had Billy Butler as the big bat in the middle of a line-up full of young kids last year? The Royals. You know how those kids did? Lousy. Eric Hosmer was bad. Mike Moustakas was bad. The 2012 non-Butler Royals hitters posted a composite wRC+ of 90. The 2012 Mariners had a wRC+ of 87. There’s no evidence that Billy Butler’s rising tide lifted any boats.
The decision on whether the Mariners should acquire a player should hinge on how much better he is than the guy he’d be replacing, not on the mythical impact he may or may not have on the guys who are going to have jobs either way. And realistically, Butler just isn’t a massive upgrade for the Mariners.
As we’ve discussed ad nauseum, the Mariners already have a glut of 1B/DH players. With John Jaso, Jesus Montero, Justin Smoak, and Mike Zunino, they have four guys who could theoretically be future building blocks at those three spots. The questions surrounding each are large enough that the team shouldn’t be afraid to add another body to that pile, but they also have to be aware of the fact that any C/1B/DH type who is slotted for regular playing time is going to get at-bats at the expense of one of the better young hitters in the organization, or in Smoak’s case, someone who was supposed to be. It’s one thing to add a guy with position flexibility — like a Nick Swisher — who can give you an extra 1B/DH option while also giving you the option of moving him to the outfield if everything breaks right and the kids all start hitting. It’s another thing to acquire a player who simply aces one of those guys out of a job.
The reward for bringing in Butler — which requires you to basically dump Smoak and make Montero a first baseman or dump Montero — is simply not going to be as high as the reward for bringing in an outfielder who doesn’t displace a guy who has some talent. And, naturally, if the reward is lower, the price also has to be lower as well.
James Paxton for Billy Butler? I’d probably do that, straight up, but I’m not convinced Paxton’s a starter long term. But, when you start talking about adding in a bunch of valuable trade chips, I’m out. The M’s are going to need those trade chips to get an outfielder if they don’t sign a guy like Swisher, and cashing those chips in to get Butler leaves you short in the OF and without a spot for a guy who has more talent than any in-house OF the team could turn to. And it only gets worse when Zunino gets promoted, and now you’re potentially punting a second member of that group.
I’m not all about keeping the kids and waiting for the prospects to develop, but I am in favor of using your trade chips in the best way possible. And Billy Butler is not the best way for the Mariners to use multiple trade chips of real value. Not while they have a glaring hole in the outfield, and not when Butler isn’t even really much of an option at first base, given his defensive limitations. Toss in that his body suggests he won’t age particularly well and that his baserunning is so atrocious that he diminishes his own offensive value, and Butler just isn’t a premium player.
But the Royals are going to want a premium return for him. They’re trying to win in 2013, and turning Butler into a pitching prospect isn’t going to help them with that. The Mariners don’t have what the Royals really want, and compensating with quantity over quality means that the team would to have to push their trade chips in on a +2 win upgrade. It’s just not worth it.
Yes, Butler’s a hitter. The Mariners need hitters. If that’s the end of your analysis, though, you’re not looking deep enough. And when you look deep enough, Butler isn’t a great fit for the M’s, and he’s not the guy they should be trading multiple young players for.