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Billy Butler’s Future with the Royals

After the announcement of Billy Butler as the 2010 Royals player of the year, talk began about Billy’s future with the Royals. Butler, during the conference call to talk with the media about his award mentioned that he’d like to stay with the Royals and win with the Royals. While that is obviously the right thing to say, I get the feeling with Butler that he truly means it. He said that a long-term deal has been discussed with him in the past, but that he wanted to focus on baseball when the season began, so talks shut down.

So the question arises of what to do with Billy Butler. I’ve talked a lot in this spot about Butler. You know that he’s one of the best pure hitters the organization has ever produced. You also know that he’s not a perfect player, and it’s difficult for lower revenue teams to lock up players long-term who don’t have at least four tools. A guy like David DeJesus, for example, was a great player to lock up a few years ago because he can do so many things for you that if something falls off, he’s still producing.

Right now, Butler is not a complete player. He can really, really, really hit. He’s hopefully developing some power. He’s turned himself into an average first baseman if you believe the defensive metrics. The man can’t run a lick, though. On top of that, he’s a candidate to have a career decline early due to his body type. That doesn’t mean he will, but most of his career comparable players didn’t exactly enjoy a 20 year run in the big leagues. On the other hand, it’s hard to turn your back on a man who can hit like Butler can. We talked the other day about how important it is for the young guys to have a veteran in the lineup who can carry the team. We also talked about how lefty heavy this lineup is going to become in the next few years, so it’s important to have a strong right-handed bat in there.

The third variable in all of this is the position that Butler plays. While he’s worked himself into an average first baseman, he’s still just a first baseman which is as low on the defensive spectrum as it gets. To make matters worse, when you account for Eric Hosmer, he’s still probably the third best first baseman out there with Hosmer and Ka’aihue ahead of him.

Let me make this clear, though. Billy Butler needs to be a Royal beyond his six years of team control. He’s become a leader on both the team and in the Kansas City community. He’s a fan favorite, and while fans shouldn’t control and make decisions for the team, when a decision can go either way, fan reaction comes into play. The question, though, is how long do you want to be paying a guy like Billy Butler? If he ages well, he’s worth as much as the Royals want to pay him. Right handed bats who hit .310 and walk and hit doubles and 20 or so homers are so incredibly valuable. On the other hand, the last big money deal the Royals gave out to a hitter crippled the team’s ability to sign players and Mike Sweeney limped his way to the finish with the Royals.

I think the best way to balance these two is with option years. To start, you have to assume that Butler will continue to hit during his arbitration years (2011, 2012, 2013). He’s not likely to fall off a cliff in that time. My guess is that if he were to go year to year and improve incrementally each year that he’d make about $25 million in those three years ($5 million, $8 million, $12 million).

I’d like the Royals to offer Butler a deal that buys those three years plus a guaranteed fourth year. Maybe offer him the Greinke – 4 years/$38 million. Then I’d tack on two option years as is becoming the trend, but the way to make it more valuable to Butler is to make them both have to be decided at once. So, in the offseason following the 2014 season, the Royals have to say yay or nay to the 2015 and 2016 contract. Make those each $14 million option years and the Royals have a deal. Add on a $1 million buyout for each season and Billy Butler has a four-year deal worth at least $40 million and at most a six-year deal worth $66 million.

If Butler becomes the next John Olerud (h/t to Greg Schaum for that comp) or Edgar Martinez then the Royals have themselves a huge bargain. If Butler continues to put up seasons like he did in 2010, then the Royals have themselves a bargain. If he falls off a cliff, then, well, let’s hope that Hosmer can really hit. I don’t think he’ll fall off a cliff, though. I think he’ll be a highly productive hitter for at least a few more years, and I truly hope the Royals get the benefits of that.

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