Mariner news has been a bit slow lately, mostly because it's 40-man roster deadline day, so I thought I'd take the time to address Billy Butler and his viability as a trade candidate. Butler's name has been whispered around the blogosphere as a potential target this winter, and Geoff Baker of the Seattle Times made the case for him yesterday morning, further fueling speculation about his chances of donning a Mariner uniform next season. I don't agree with Baker's premise that the presence of John Jaso and Jesus Montero won't impede the Mariners pursuit of Butler (more on that later) but I'll concede that he'd make an intriguing, if odd-fitting, acquisition nonetheless.
Let's start with what Butler brings to the table. Billy is the definition of a bat only player. He masquerades as a first basemen a handful of times per year, but at 6'1'', 240, Butler is the slow and unathletic living inspiration for the existence of the designated hitter position. I can't find the link, but Royals blogger Rany Jazayerli once told a story about the organization's short-lived attempt to turn Butler into an outfielder. As it goes, Butler was bumbling his way through a bucket of fungoes one morning when he ran in to talk to the coach who had been hitting flies. A winded Butler came to inform his coach that he couldn't see the balls out of the sky, and to ask if he wouldn't mind hitting them a bit lower. Not surprisingly, the Royals soon abandoned the experiment.
But Butler compensates for his lack of defensive chops by durably serving as one of the better hitters in the league. Butler has wielded a better than league average bat in all but one season since his debut in 2007. From 2009-2011, he built himself a reputation as a solid hitter, good annually for an average near .300, a decent OBP, 15-20 homers a year, and a ton of doubles. He was essentially diet Edgar Martinez.
But Billy Butler is not a man to stick with a watered down beverage for long and in 2012, he went Edgar on the American League. Butler posted career highs in home runs (29), isolated power (.197), slugging percentage (.510), and wRC+ (140). He also nearly topped his career bests in batting average (.313) and OBP (.317) and was rewarded with what turned out to be a high profile all-star game selection. Considering that he was just twenty-six at the end of his breakout season, interest in his services has swelled over the last year.
Teams around the league are also excited about the opportunity to acquire Butler at a reasonable price. The Royals owe their DH just $16 million over the next two years, with a $12.5 million club option for 2015 (as long as Butler doesn't literally turn into a pumpkin, it will probably be exercised). Essentially, Butler is hitting like an all-star while earning the salary of a fringe starter. It's easy to see why pretty much every team in the AL would love to add Butler to their lineup.
Baker writes that neither Walker nor Paxton alone would be enticing enough for Kansas City to move Butler. I disagree, and I can't imagine Jack Zduriencik sends either to KC straight up. Walker is a true blue chip prospect, one with ace potential, and the chance he turns into a star is simply too alluring to exchange for three seasons of production from a bat only player.
Paxton doesn't have Walker's ceiling, but he is a few years older, and he has a decent chance of reaching the majors as soon as this season. The twenty-four year old lefty struck out more than a batter per inning last summer in double A, and even if he "only" develops into a back end starter, he will probably provide a bit more value over six seasons than Butler can offer in three.
That doesn't mean that Butler would come cheaply. If the Royals decide to move Butler, it's an indication that they are continuing to build towards the future, and they would want some of the Mariners top young talent in return. In that scenario, Walker is one of only a few Mariner players off the table. If the M's want Butler, they would likely be forced to fork over someone like Paxton (in a multi-player deal), Nick Franklin, or even a guy like Dustin Ackley in a potential trade. It's a steep price (all are in the top ten of Jason Churchill's -paywalled- Mariner trade value rankings) to pay, and it's a move the Mariners might not be willing to make.
Butler's viability is further clouded by his position. While he can cover at first if Justin Smoak shows up late, he's best employed as a hitter only. The presence of Jaso and particularly Montero is also problematic. Montero and Jaso are two of the Mariners most important hitters next season, and both figure to compete for at-bats at DH. Even though Montero struggled last season, he remains an important piece of the Mariners future, a standing that was only improved when the M's announced their intention to move in the left field fence. Seattle might consider moving Montero for Butler straight up, but that's a risky deal for both sides, and is a move unlikely to come to fruition.
In short, it's hard to see Butler as a Mariner as long as Montero remains in uniform. I wouldn't necessarily mind if the Mariners pull the trigger on a move for the slugger, particularly if Butler comes cheaper than anticipated, but he appears to be a better fit for other organizations. Zduriencik has surprised us all before, but I'm not seeing this one.