The last time the Oakland A’s signed a free agent away from the Kansas City Royals, the contract announcement was met with a good measure of confusion and some derision. Over the past five years, the A’s and Coco Crisp have gotten the last laugh. Oakland is hoping that history will repeat itself with their newest free agent signing, longtime Kansas City Royals slugger Billy Butler.
The news began to leak out late Tuesday night that the A’s were close to signing Butler to a three-year deal worth $30 million, with another $2 million available in possible incentives. According to a source, the A's and Orioles both bid $30 million, with the A's coming out ahead with the extra incentive money. At first blush, the move appears puzzling. While the A’s entered the off-season in need of a right-handed hitting, middle-of-the-order bat, Butler isn’t an obvious fit. His numbers have declined each of the past two seasons and his 2014 campaign was by far the worst of his career. Butler was made a free agent when the Royals declined his $12 million option for the 2015 season. The A’s have also valued players with defensive versatility in recent years, and Butler is the opposite of that, a player limited to first base who is best suited as a designated hitter.
On the other hand, Butler may be the perfect fit for Oakland. The A’s were one of the worst teams in baseball last season against left-handed pitching and Butler – even in a down year – had an 847 OPS versus southpaws. The A’s also hit only .244 as a team last season and Butler has always had the ability to hit for average. He hit .271 last season, a career low, and that would have been the second-best average on the A’s behind Stephen Vogt. Like most A’s players, Butler is patient (his career OBP is .359). He also doesn’t strike-out a lot, especially for a power hitter. According to FanGraphs.com, of the 33 players with at least 440 total bases over the past two seasons, Butler has the eighth-lowest strike-out percentage (h/t Rick Randall, SeattleClubhouse).
The A’s didn’t have a regular DH last season. Alberto Callaspo led the team in at-bats as a DH and he had a 598 OPS in that role. As a unit, A’s DHs combined to slash .215/.294/.343 in 152 games, so clearly there was a need for improvement for the A’s in that spot in their order.
Unlike most free agents, Butler isn’t yet past his prime years. Although he has been in the league since 2007, Butler won’t turn 29 until mid-April. He got off to a horrible start in 2014, but his second half was significantly better than his first. His OPS+ for the first half of the season was a subpar 94. During the second half, it was a solid 113. With the exception of the first half of last year, Butler has maintained an OPS+ of 113 or higher in every half of a season over the past four years. So the A’s are clearly betting on the idea that his first half of 2014 is the outlier.
Betting on a bad-bodied DH to age well isn’t always a strong play, but Butler has been remarkably durable throughout his career. The A’s have collected players with extensive injury histories over the past few seasons. Last year, those injury histories caught up to the team during the second-half of the season, as the A’s saw several key players limited by injury. Butler has appeared in 151 games or more in each of the past six seasons.
The A’s saw what happened to their line-up when right-handed power threat Yoenis Cespedes was traded at the deadline. Butler, with only nine homeruns last season, doesn’t appear on the face to be a good replacement for Cespedes in terms of power, but his homerun totals might be misleading. Right-handed power hitters have struggled to put up big numbers in Kansas City of late. Butler is one of only two right-handed hitters to connect on at least 15 homeruns over the past two seasons. While the Oakland Coliseum isn’t generally thought of as a good place to hit homeruns, it did rate as an easier place to hit homers last season than Kauffman Stadium.
How the A’s intend to work Butler into their regular rotation remains to be seen. Before the addition of Butler, John Jaso appeared to be the most likely candidate to receive the bulk of his at-bats at DH. Jaso is coming off two seasons cut short by concussions and, even at his healthiest, is a better hitter than defensive catcher. Moving Jaso off the catcher position to keep him healthy and in the line-up makes a lot of sense. Vogt is expected to be healthy this spring after off-season foot surgery, and he is the best defensive catcher on the A’s 40-man roster. Giving Vogt more starts behind the plate would help the A’s defensively at a position where they struggled with the glove last year. Jaso is a left-handed hitter and he and Butler could platoon at DH, although it is hard to imagine that the A’s plan to pay Butler seven figures to start only once or twice a week.
Update: During a 10am PST press conference, Oakland A's GM Billy Beane stated that Butler would play both DH and first base, with many of his first base at-bats likely coming against left-handed pitchers. Beane mentioned that Butler had played better defensively the last two years than he did early in his career when given the opportunity. Beane also mentioned that having Jaso see some time at first base, as well as catch, was a possibility going into next season. Jaso, Beane said, has been cleared medically to resume all baseball activities.
The A’s will also need the DH spot to give Crisp half-days off from time-to-time. Oakland could be planning to use Butler more frequently at first base than he had been used at the position with Kansas City. Although not known for his glove, Butler hasn’t been quite as bad as advertised when put out at first in recent years. He certainly won’t be worse at first than what the A’s had out there for much of last year, with Callaspo and Vogt learning the position on the fly.
Another option the A’s have is to work Jaso out at first base during spring training and have him and Butler share time at first and DH, while moving Brandon Moss to left field. That would leave the A’s with a starting outfield of Moss, Crisp and Josh Reddick, a first base/DH combination of Jaso and Butler, and two speedy outfielders coming off of the bench in Craig Gentry and Sam Fuld. That would also likely mean that Nate Freiman would be sent back to Triple-A and Kyle Blanks would be exposed to waivers.
The off-season is still in its early stages, and it is hard to assess any transaction without seeing how the rest of the off-season unfolds. At the start of the off-season, I examined three possible roadmaps for the A’s to take: re-build, re-tool or re-load. The Butler signing almost certainly takes the re-build roadmap off of the table and makes it more likely that the A’s intend to put their best efforts towards returning to the post-season in 2015.