Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Butler Signed It.

God, what an awful pun. Naturally, I couldn’t resist.

Continuing my quest to remain three news cycles behind the times, it’s time to discuss the Billy Butler contract even while all the news is about the Royals’ farm system. Specifically, Baseball America officially ranked the Royals as having the #1 farm system in all of baseball on Monday; Keith Law of acknowledged his agreement (but with the Tampa Bay Rays not far behind) on Wednesday. Law also issued his Top 100 Prospects list on Thursday, and The Big Five – Hosmer, Myers, Moustakas, Montgomery, and Lamb – were all in his Top 41. (The only other Royal on the list was Danny Duffy at #98, although both Jake Odorizzi and Chris Dwyer were on Law’s list of ten “just missed” prospects.)

And to top it off, unveiled their Top 50 Prospects on Tuesday, which included six Royals – The Big Five and, somewhat surprisingly, Odorizzi.

I think my word count on the subject of the farm system over the past 12 months is well into six figures at this point, so I don’t have much to add right now. The most important thing to take from all the accolades is that they were so expected that they almost felt anticlimactic. That the most well-respected prospect analysts in the business acknowledged that the Royals had the best farm system in baseball wasn’t a revelation. It was a coronation. Now comes the hard part: turning promise into production.

When it comes to that very transmutation, Billy Butler represents a nearly best-case scenario. Butler was a Top 30 Prospect twice – #29 by Baseball America in 2006, #25 in 2007 – who only ranked that low because of his almost comical lack of defensive value. As a hitter, Butler compares favorably with anyone in the Royals’ farm system today, or frankly, anyone in the Royals’ farm system ever. Eric Hosmer hit .338/.406/.571 in his breakout 2010 season. Butler’s career line in the minors was .336/.416/.561, and he was in the majors less than two months after he turned 21.

Butler was back in the minors for a brief refresher course less than two months after he turned 22, which should serve as a reminder that even for the best of prospects, even for the ones that ultimately make it, setbacks are the norm. It was easy to assume on his way up the chain that there was no way that Butler wouldn’t make it, that he was too talented to fail. He didn’t fail, but it’s a testament to his work ethic as much to his talent that he was rewarded with the contract he signed earlier this week.

In his first two seasons in the majors, Butler hit .282/.334/.420. In his first two seasons – the same two seasons (2006 and 2007) – Alex Gordon hit .253/.332/.421. Butler and Gordon had the exact same OPS+ (99) in that span. But while Gordon floundered in 2008 and 2009, over the last two years Butler hit .309/.375/.480, and his 96 doubles in that span are the most in Royals history by a player in back-to-back seasons. We knew four years ago that Butler had a boatload of talent, but we didn’t know if his potential was a promise or a curse. Today we no longer have to wonder about what Butler will be, because what he already is is good enough.

Which isn’t to say that he doesn’t have the potential to get even better. Butler will still be 24 until a few weeks after Opening Day. Unless someone like Moustakas forces his way onto the roster, the only hitter on the Opening Day roster younger than Butler will be Alcides Escobar. He’s the best hitter in the lineup, and the second-youngest.

So the answer to the question, “Was Butler worthy of a long-term deal?” is a pretty resounding yes. The specific cost-benefit analysis has already been done by Matt Klaassen here, so I won’t try to reinvent the wheel. I’ll just say that as long as Butler remains reasonably healthy, and as long as he doesn’t undergo a shocking collapse at the plate, the worst the Royals can do on this deal is break even.

We can’t completely discount the possibility of a collapse. Butler is a hitting savant, but he’s not the most athletic guy in the world. It’s a well-established principle that young hitters with “old hitters’ skills” – guys that can’t run well or play defense or hit for average, but can take pitches and occasionally hit one into the next county – tend to peak at a young age.

The worst-case scenario for this would be someone like Ben Grieve, who was the #2 overall pick in the draft out of high school, in the majors at 21, the AL Rookie of the Year at 22. After three eerily consistent seasons as a borderline star hitter for the A’s, they traded him to Tampa Bay in the massive three-way deal that sent Johnny Damon out of Kansas City and brought us (joy!) Angel Berroa and Roberto Hernandez. The A’s must have known something, because Grieve was never more than an average hitter after that; he was done as a full-time player at age 27 and out of the majors at age 29.

Grieve comes to mind when I think of Butler because, like Butler, Grieve’s main flaw even at his peak was that he hit too many ground balls. And just like Butler, when Grieve was 24 years old – his last year with Oakland, and his last good year – he led the American League by grounding into 32 double plays.

That eerie coincidence aside, the comparison isn’t really fair to Butler, because while Butler may have the physique of an older player, he doesn’t have the batting style of one. Grieve hit .288 as a rookie and that was his career high; Butler has hit over .300 each of the last two seasons. In his five seasons as a regular, Grieve drew at least 63 walks and struck out at least 108 times each year; Butler has slowly learned plate discipline, topping out at 69 walks last year, but his career high in whiffs is 103 – and he struck out just 78 times last season.

Butler has an unusual blend of skills: he’s a right-handed hitter with no speed and, owing to his propensity for groundballs, only mid-range power – but despite his lack of speed, he succeeds in hitting for a high average. The first two comps I thought of were Carney Lansford and Bill Madlock, but both Lansford and Madlock had pretty decent speed – both guys stole 30 bases in a season once. (Lansford stole 37 bases in 1989, at the age of 32, which shocked the hell out of me when I looked it up.)

A look at Butler’s ten most comparable players (through age 24) on only confirms the notion that he’s a historically unusual player. The ten players are all either left-handed hitters (John Olerud, Kent Hrbek, Nick Markakis, Carlos May, Carl Yastrzemski, Keith Hernandez), athletic guys who played good defense (Chet Lemon, Ellis Valentine), or an exact contemporary (Delmon Young). The presence of Yaz on the list makes me feel good, as I spent some time comparing the two players last season.

I’m ignoring Tony Horton as a comparison, as Horton’s career came to an abrupt end in 1970, at the age of 25, when he attempted suicide; while he survived, the emotional stress of the game prevented him from ever returning to the majors. But even ignoring Horton, it has to worry you a little that two of Butler’s comps – May and Valentine – were basically done as everyday players in their mid-20s, after playing at an All-Star level for several years.

I don’t think that the experiences of players like May and Valentine and Grieve are specifically relevant to Butler, because I think he’s a different kind of player than all of them. But I think their struggles are generally relevant, in that they serve as a reminder that not all players follow the aging curve faithfully; they don’t all peak at the age of 27 and then slowly decline. Butler is 24 years old, he’s improved as a hitter in almost every season, and it’s tempting to think that the parabola of his career is still sloping upwards. But there’s always a risk that it’s not.

As Jeff Zimmerman details here, if Butler has tried to change his approach to hit more balls in the air, it’s not showing up in the results. While I personally think that Butler is as comparable to Edgar Martinez as anyone else – and Martinez wasn’t even an everyday player in the majors until he was 27 – there’s a risk Butler will never be a better hitter than he is now.

All those risks, though, are fairly priced into his contract. Butler makes $5 million this season, counting his signing bonus, and $8 million in each of the next three seasons. (There’s also a $1 million option on the fifth year.) The way the contract is structured is interesting; it’s more front-loaded than most contracts given to arbitration-eligible players. When the terms of 4 years, $30 million were first announced, I expected the breakdown to be something along the lines of $4/6/9/11, steadily increasing as he got closer to free agency.

From an owner’s perspective, in a perfectly rational world you would always want a contract to be as back-loaded as possible – ideally you’d pay Butler the league minimum for three years and then $28.8 million in 2014. Inflation will make the money at the end of a contract worth less, and you can invest the money now and pocket the interest you make in the interim.

But in the real world, where teams rarely are allowed to carry a budget surplus from one year into the next, front-loading this contract makes a lot of sense. Thanks to Gil Meche’s retirement the Royals had plenty of payroll space for 2011, and they famously had almost no payroll obligations in 2012 – Butler is now the only player on the major league roster who has a guaranteed contract beyond the upcoming season. The Royals could afford to pay him a little more this season – in fact, they very well might perceive the need to up the payroll in 2011 just to get the Players’ Association off their backs – and in return they have a more manageable salary in 2013 and 2014, when presumably they will want to be aggressive in free agency to add the final pieces for a team that’s in playoff contention.

Speaking cynically, keeping Butler’s salary lower towards the back end of the contract would also make him easier to trade, should the Royals decide to do so. I don’t think this is particularly likely, but if Kila Ka’aihue proves to be as capable a hitter as I think he can be, the Royals will face a difficult decision once they decide Eric Hosmer is ready. The easy – and likely – solution will be to trade Ka’aihue for whatever they can get for him. The bold decision would be to move Hosmer to the outfield and try to get all three bats in the lineup.

But I wouldn’t discount a Butler trade. The Royals have spent much of the last six months trying to add more right-handed bats to the system, anticipating a need to protect Hosmer and Moustakas from a wave of left-handed pitching. But after the Greinke trade, the Royals’ future lineup has right-handed hitters at shortstop (Escobar), center field (Cain), second base (Colon or Giavotella), and now right field and catcher a well, as Wil Myers has formally moved to the outfield, leaving Salvador Perez as the reigning catcher of the future. Hosmer and Moustakas are actually the only two left-handed hitters in the projected lineup. If the Royals commit to Butler and trade Ka’aihue, then they will have at least six right-handed hitters in the everyday lineup, with left field still to be determined. That’s a potential problem lurking down the road.

It’s a problem that can be addressed down the road, because with this contract the Royals have locked up their best hitter while still maintaining flexibility, both in terms of personnel and in terms of money. I was happy when I thought it was a four-year deal for $30 million; I was ecstatic when it turns out it was a five-year deal for $41.5 million and a voidable fifth year. It’s reported as “four years with a club option”, but it’s better to think of it as a five-year deal, one that buys out not one but two years of Butler’s free agency, only with the added bonus that the team can opt out early if things turn sour. Even at five years, the contract ends before Butler’s 30th birthday, and the horror stories above notwithstanding, most of the guys with “old players’ skills” – guys like Alvin Davis and Travis Hafner and the like – didn’t really lose it until they turned 30.

This is, I believe, only the second contract of the Dayton Moore Era that involved a true club option – as opposed to the mutual options which get handed out like candy. The other contract with a club option is a doozy – Joakim Soria’s guaranteed contract ends after this year, but the Royals have options for 2012, 2013, and 2014.  A club option is one of the greatest weapons in a GM’s financial arsenal – it grants the team a big upside with minimal downside. While I’d like to see the Royals bargain their way to more club options in the future, at least Moore had the wherewithal to deploy those club options for two of his best players.

As an analyst, I love the contract, because I think that the Royals got a substantial risk discount on this contract – the odds Butler doesn’t earn his money are dwarfed by the odds that he plays at such a high level that he would have made millions more going year to year. That’s not to say that Butler got hosed – he’s guaranteed 30 million dollars, and that’s past the threshold it should take for any player with a modicum of financial sense to be set for life. But it was definitely a win for the club.

As a fan, I love the contract, because it helps to wash away the bitter taste in my mouth of watching Zack Greinke force his way out of a town, replacing one star player under a long-term deal with another, albeit lesser star. I love the deal because it only continues the momentum that Moore has established this off-season, making a serious of shrewd short-term plays without putting up any roadblocks, or even speed bumps, for his cache of prospects. I love it because I think Butler has stepped up into a leadership role in the clubhouse, and has not only embraced the promise of the team’s farm system, he seems committed to helping to nurture that promise along.

Mostly, I love the deal because I love watching Billy Butler hit. And I’m looking forward to watching him do that – and eventually I’m going to get all of you to start calling him “Bam Bam”, dammit – for the next five years.