I have to admit, I felt a great deal of relief when it was announced Billy Butler had been selected as the Royals Player of the Year.  Usually, I could give a damn about these awards. However, this year part of me was frightened there could be a ground swell of support for the Yunigma.  After all the Royals PR department did during the year to promote his RBI and the fact he did tie for the team lead with 16 home runs… Honestly, this is like the Doomsday Scenario.  It would have been Mark Redman, All-Star kind of bad.

Butler won for the second consecutive year, and it was deserving.  He became only the second Royal to ever win the award back to back. (George Brett did it twice, naturally.)  In fact, looking ahead to 2011, I would put money on Butler doing something not even the great Brett could accomplish – threepeat.

Speaking of the future, when Butler was on a conference call with the media, the discussion turned to the potential of him signing a long-term deal to stay in Kansas City.  It’s the perfect time for the topic to come up, since Butler is eligible for arbitration for the first time this winter.

In Dutton’s article in the KC Star, Butler acknowledged there had been some talk about his future with the club

“In spring training last year,” he said, “there were some talks, but they kind of slowed down. My only wish was that when the season started, I wanted to be focused on baseball.

“Obviously, if the right deal is there, I’d be more than happy to (sign). This (club) is all I’ve ever known, and I don’t want to change. I’m comfortable, and I want to see this team win in Kansas City. I wouldn’t like to go anywhere else.”
We all know how the last couple of sentences will play in our town.  (He likes us! He really, really likes us!)  Kansas Citians love players who love them back.  We celebrated this last week with Joakim Soria who announced his love for the organization.  And some of us vilified Zack Greinke when he said he didn’t want to stick around for another youth movement.

Given that we know Butler would like to stay, let’s try to separate emotion from reality and put on our general manager caps for a moment.

Does it make sense for the Royals to give Butler a contract extension.

— Money.
You can keep Butler in the fold for one or two years past what would be his initial entry into free agency.  (He’s scheduled to be a free agent following the 2013 season.)  Butler has proved he can be a quality player in the major leagues and he could potentially become an All-Star with the bat.  Guys like this don’t come cheap, so you better get him while you can lock him into a discount.

— Youth. Butler turns 25 a couple of weeks after Opening Day.  If the Royals sign him to a long-term deal, they can lock him up at least until he turns 30.

— Professional hitter. Butler is just a pure hitter. In 2010, the guy cut his strikeout rate from 15.3% the previous season to 11.5%.  He bumped his walk rate from 8.6% to 10.2%.  That fueled a 26 point jump in his OBP.

He hits a line drive 18% of the time he puts the ball in play and he’s just a doubles machine.  His 96 doubles from the last two seasons is the most in the majors.  On a team strapped for power, that counts for something.

The Royals offense has been horrible the last several years.  Last season, they scored an average of 4.17 runs per game. I shudder to think how low that number would have been if they had someone like the departed Ross Gload or Mike Jacobs in the lineup instead of Butler.

— Absence of power development.
Despite hitting 45 doubles in 2010, Butler lost 23 points off his slugging percentage and 40 points of his isolated power. (ISO)  Ever since I started writing about Butler I’ve been preaching the gospel of the upper cut in the swing.  The guy is simply a solid line drive hitter (which is outstanding – he has a career .325 BABIP because he has an 18% line drive rate) but his margin for error lies not in the fly ball, but in the grounder.  In other words, when he misses by that tiniest fraction of an inch, it’s because he’s over the ball and not under.

The result is a GB/FB ratio that is rock steady.

2007 – 1.43
2008 – 1.41
2009 – 1.37
2010 – 1.40

If I asked you to look at the above ratios and tell me his best power year, it wouldn’t be a surprise to learn that it came in 2009 – the year when his ratio was most skewed toward the fly ball.  And that’s the issue… When I write “most skewed” were talking three hundredths of a point.  He simply has to learn to generate loft.  Unfortunately, in the course of nearly 2,200 major league plate appearances, this has yet to happen.

— Iron glove. The only way Butler will ever win a Gold Glove is if he changes his name to Derek Jeter.

OK… Butler has improved at first base with the glove.  His reflexes are pretty good for a big man.  Still, with two plus years of Ultimate Zone Rating data at our disposal, I think we can safely say Butler is never going to be average defensively.  Don’t get me wrong… It’s awesome he’s worked so hard on his defense and he is certainly getting better.  It’s just he’s moved the needle from “Disaster” to “Solidly Below Average” when it comes to the glove.

— Tortise-like speed.
The man has been clocked with sundials.  He’s not going to get faster.  He’s going to become slower.  If that’s possible.

— The body. Butler is a big man.  And big men can be a crap shoot.  For every Jim Thome there is a Travis Hafner and Brian Giles.  Can the Royals afford to commit a high percentage of their payroll to a player who could potentially break down as he approaches and passes the age of 30?

Last year, I was all for giving Butler the extension.  This year, I’m torn.  The cons are pretty convincing if you ask me.  Plus, there’s this little matter of the Moustakas, Hosmer, Myers troika of bats tearing up the minors.  Hosmer is the future at first base, but is still probably two years away from his debut.  Those are Butler’s first two arbitration seasons.

I think it would serve the Royals and Dayton Moore well to slow play this situation.  See how Hosmer does beginning the season in Double-A with an eye to a potential move to Triple-A midway through the season.  This also gives the Royals another season to evaluate Butler, to see if he will finally develop that power stroke we have all been waiting on.  The danger in waiting is the price will certainly rise.  I’m fine with that.  Better to add a few extra millions a year late and feel good about it than to curse a backloaded contract for a broken down hitter who never developed power.

If Hosmer stays on track and arrives in Kansas City in 2013, the Royals can shift Butler to DH (although he’s been adamant about playing in the field) and then let him move on to the highest bidder.  Sure, it could be a bummer to let a quality bat depart as a free agent, but if The Process works and the Big Three in the minors are the studs we hope they will be, then you let Butler walk and sign a huge contract for some other team.