The Kansas City Royals made waves late in October by putting designated hitter Billy Butler on the trade block. I'll get to the trade in a moment, but first, he is at the point in his career when he deserves a full Prospect Retro treatment, so here it is.
Butler was drafted by the Royals in the first round in 2004, 14th overall, out of high school in Jacksonville, Florida. Although scouts loved his hitting, he didn't have an ideal body or terrific physical tools, leading many to consider him an overdraft. He signed for a prearranged $1,450,000 bonus, which was $250,000 below slot value, giving further credence to the "budget pick" theory, although the Royals front office insisted that his bat was first-round material.
His debut was certainly a success: .373/.488/.596 with 10 homers, 22 doubles, and 57 walks in the Pioneer League, with high praise for his combination of polish and power. His defense at third base was weak and he was very likely going to wind up as a first baseman/DH, but the bat looked terrific. I gave him a Grade B+ in my 2005 book, writing that he had been "compared to Mike Sweeney and could have a similar future."
Butler looked excellent in spring training 2005 and was sent directly to High-A for his first full season at age 19. The Royals affiliate back then was High Desert and as you can imagine he was devastating there, hitting .348/.419/.636 with 25 homers in 379 at-bats. Promoted to Double-A Wichita, he remained extremely effective in the more difficult Texas League, hitting .312/.353/.527 in 29 games. Scouts who saw him late in the year told me that while his batting stance was unorthodox, his combination of excellent bat speed, plate discipline, and power at all fields would play at any level.
The question was defense: the Royals gave up on him at third base very quickly and he ended the year in the outfield. He showed a good-enough arm, but his lack of running speed and defensive instincts was an obvious handicap. I kept him rated as a Grade B+ entering 2006, ranked as the Number 29 hitting prospect in baseball. He would have ranked higher if not for the glove issue.
Butler returned to Wichita for 2006 and spent the whole season there, hitting .331/.388/.499 with 33 doubles, 15 homers, 41 walks, and just 67 strikeouts in 477 at-bats. His hitting warranted a promotion by mid-season at least, but the Royals wanted him working on his defense. He was also part of a promising roster (including Alex Gordon, Mitch Maier, then-hot prospect Chris Lubanski, and Zack Greinke) that they were reluctant to break up, which did help Wichita into the Texas League playoffs, though they eventually lost in the semi-finals.
I gave Butler a Grade A- in my 2007 book, noting that he was capable of hitting .280-.300 in the majors and that the only real question was if "he'll have 15-20 home run power or 25-30 home run power." Glovework remained problematic but I was impressed enough with the bat to rank him as my Number Seven hitting prospect.
Butler split 2007 and 2008 between Omaha and Kansas City, then put it all together in 2009 with a .301/.362/.492 line including 51 doubles and a 125 OPS+. As expected he wound up as a first baseman and eventually a full-time DH, although within those limits he has been extremely durable, averaging 160 games over the last five seasons. He was particularly effective in 2012 (.313/.373/.510, 29 homers, 138 OPS+) but saw some slippage in '13 (.289/.374/.412 with just 15 homers, 112 OPS+). And now the Royals are talking about getting rid of him.
While the drop off in homers this past year is annoying, it looks like just a correction on his career path to me. His composite line the last two seasons is .301/.373/.462, 127 OPS+. His career line is .298/.364/.459, OPS+122.
I live close to Kansas City so I get to see a lot of Butler in action, and he really doesn't strike me as having changed much as a hitter. That's perhaps both a bad thing (he's not going to develop into a 30+ homer guy) and a good thing (he should continue to hit around .280-.300 with a valuable OBP and 15-20ish homers), but I didn't see anything to make me think that he was a dramatically different guy in '13 than he was in '12 or '11.
Absent any other factors, both on paper and in person, it looks to me like the difference between '12 and '13 is just statistical noise.
Butler is only 27, turning 28 next April, so he's not exactly old yet. Even with a bad body, at age 27/28 he isn't at a typical spot on the career path for a permanent performance drop. Fangraphs isn't a big fan due to the defensive issue and gives him just 9.8 WAR in his career, but nobody expects Butler to contribute with the glove at this point. His job is to hit, he still does that effectively, he's not that old, and he's not that expensive.
I expect he'll go back to producing something like his career numbers in 2014, somewhere a few points either side of the .300/.370/.460 axis.
Of course, the Royals and their coaches and their video breakdowns would (should anyway) know more about Butler's status than I do, and perhaps they see something that leads them to believe that '13 is the start of a negative trend, and the time to get rid of him is now.
So, what about trading him? My initial reaction to this was along the lines of "what the hell?" Even the 2013 version of Butler, after all, is one of the few consistently competent hitters in the Royals lineup, and it didn't make sense to me for a team that has trouble scoring runs to put their second-best OPS+ producer on the market. The only guys on the team who approach him as an offensive player are Eric Hosmer, Gordon when he is going well, and perhaps Salvador Perez if you are optimistic.
The counter-argument is that while Butler is a solid hitter yes, he's also very slow, has no defensive value,and that while he may not collapse immediately, he is not the type of guy who isn't likely to age particularly well once he gets past 30. If you can get, say, a middle infielder who can hit and field well enough to put up a higher WAR value in exchange for Butler, then you should be able to find a spare bat lying around somewhere to handle the DH spot and come out ahead in the deal. And that's probably true; such a plan makes sense on paper.
Overall, I think you can make a logical case for Butler as a trade candidate...the idea is not completely insane.
But it boils down to the particulars, the execution, what the trade actually turns out to be: do you get a player of equal or greater value in return, and do you find a way to fill the now-empty DH spot in a competent way.
And on that we'll have to reserve judgment.