Bye-Bye, Billy

For a moment I thought I had dozed off. Had I just heard that Billy Butler had signed a 3 year, $30 million contract with the Oakland A’s? The “moneyball” A’s? The team that plays in a park even more unforgiving of the long ball than Kauffman Stadium? THOSE Oakland A’s? I rewound the live TV feed (Thanks 21st century technology!) and found I had heard correctly. “Hit it a ton” was gone.

After 8 productive, mostly positive, sometimes maddening seasons, Billy Butler was no longer a Kansas City Royal.

For so many years that it seems impossible the man is only 28 years old, Butler was the sometimes reluctant but always amiable face of the Royals. That fact that him being the poster child for the the Boys in Blue was somewhat of a national joke (“If HE is the best player on the team, what does that say about that franchise?”) was not lost on most here in Kansas City. Oh, we loved him when he said he wanted to be a Royal for life, and we cheered when he chugged in with one of his over 1200 hits, or one of his 276 doubles. However there was always a bit of “what if” about Billy. What if he got himself into real athletic shape? What if he worked on his quickness just a little? What if he developed his power into real 30 homerun potential? What if he could actually play first base better than a lawn ornament? Billy was something of an enigma; he was something like a supercharged engine in the body of an old farm truck.

We loved him because we had to. When one turns 16 in the Midwest, if they are lucky enough to get a fifteen year old truck to drive around in, they feel pretty lucky. Billy was in some ways that truck. He personified the plight of the Royals. The biggest stars on the teams of the late 2000’s were guys that would fit in perfectly well on a team that had proven veteran leadership and some legitimate stars. Put Billy Butler on any AL playoff team of the last five years, and he is a valuable complementary piece. A part-time DH, part time first baseman with occasional power who might hit over 20 home runs regularly in a small ball park and will give a team a near .300 average and gap power consistently. Make him the centerpiece of your team and he becomes something less than ideal.

From 2008-2012, Billy Butler was the biggest star on the Royals. He was steady while Alex Gordon flamed out at third, got shifted to the outfield, and finally blossomed. He ascended while young prospects drafted by Dayton Moore’s regime struggled to find a place and a groove at the big league level. He posted his best year in the dreadful 2012 “Our Time” campaign. But by 2013, he began to see himself become just another player-- one that merited only spot duty in the field, which was much to his dislike. He openly complained about not being able to keep his head in the game when he only got four or five chances a night to contribute.

The writing was on the wall in the 2014 season. Benched late in games for base stealers, benched completely for non-production even though Mike Moustakas was hitting fifty points lower than him, and even after he had played admirably well at first base during Eric Hosmer’s stint on the DL, Billy’s welcome in KC looked glaringly worn out. His partner through the dark days, Alex Gordon had become the biggest star in Kansas City, winning multiple Gold Gloves. Names like Perez, Cain, Hosmer and Escobar had eclipsed him in the regular lineup. On a team built on pitching, defense and speed, there seemed no place for an all hit, no field, no run player like Billy Butler.

Even after the glorious run to the Series, when Butler made a strong enough contribution to the team to merit a second look at keeping him, one could sense that the team was not going to try overly hard to re-sign the man who had once been the Royals’ cornerstone.

The die has been cast. Butler signed for a year longer than the Royals were willing to give him, and a couple of million dollars higher than the Royals were willing to pay. Moore among others has stated that the Royals want legitimate pitching to patch the hole soon to be left by James Shields. They want a bat with power to play right field, and they would like to platoon the DH to potentially give Salvador Perez time off behind the plate. The conversation out of Kauffman, while still outwardly polite to Butler and his contribution to the franchise is that the team has passed him by and that his skill set is in decline. The question is, can they get those pieces they are looking for? Are they willing to spend the money in a suddenly escalated market to compete? Or, and this is very strange to say, will we look back in a couple of years and ask why we let Billy Butler walk? While the last two years have done a lot to make me believe in the philosophy of Dayton Moore and the ownership of David Glass, there is enough of the stench of 29 years of losing to make me wonder if they are willing to swim in the deep end of the pool. At least, and for once, the baseball gods gave a sendoff to a player that they deserved, giving Butler the chance to see what once seemed unreasonable and unreachable dreams realized, and for him to be a contributor to that cause. Goodbye, Billy. And good luck.

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