Editor's note: Stay logged on this offseason as Insider Joe Stiglich files his thoughts on available MLB free agents and the possibility they could become A's
Coming off a season where second-half offensive woes proved costly, the A’s could certainly use more firepower at the plate for 2015.
So far, most of the attention justifiably has focused on Oakland’s need for a shortstop. We’ll take things a different direction as we break ground on a series looking at the pros and cons of free agents that could be a potential fit for the A’s.
Is it mostly speculation? Sure. But that’s what makes this time of year so appealing. There are so many free agents out there, so many pieces that seemingly fit for a team coming off three consecutive trips to the postseason, albeit disappointing ones.
We’ll start things off with a player that fans of both Bay Area teams are familiar with from last postseason – longtime Kansas City Royals designated hitter Billy Butler.
Butler, 28, is a right-handed hitter with a proven track record of production in the bigs. And the A’s seemingly always are in the market for right-handed pop. That’s especially true after the trade deadline deal that sent All-Star outfielder Yoenis Cespedes packing last July.
Butler has averaged 16 home runs and 79 RBI over his eight-year career, but those numbers don’t tell the full story. Butler is just two seasons removed from an All-Star campaign in which he hit .313 with 29 homers and 107 RBI. He’s cracked the 90-RBI mark on two other occasions and has enjoyed 19-homer and 21-homer seasons. Don’t ignore the fact that Butler posted those numbers while playing his home games inside Kauffman Stadium, not the most hospitable of yards for a hitter.
Yikes, what’s happened to that production over the past two seasons? Butler’s on base-plus-slugging percentage dipped from .882 in 2012 to .787 in 2013, then .702 in 549 at-bats last season. To get a sense of where that number falls in terms of last year’s most productive designated hitters, consider that Victor Martinez produced an OPS of .973, David Ortiz posted an .890 and Chris Carter came in at .841. Even Adam Dunn, who failed to make an impact for Oakland after he was acquired in late August, topped Butler’s season-long OPS with a .732 mark.
After that career-high 107 RBI in 2012, Butler’s totals have dropped to 82 and 66 over the past two seasons. The homers fell from 29 in 2012, to 15 in 2013 and nine last year.
There’s something to be said for having someone with an experienced and proven track record to plug in at DH. And unlike other seasoned DH’s that the A’s have imported in recent seasons (think Dunn and Hideki Matsui), Butler is on the right side of 30. He’ll celebrate his 29th birthday in April.
As a group last season, A’s designated hitters ranked 14th in the A.L. in OPS (.639), 13th in slugging percentage (.350), tied for 12th in home runs (15) and 11th in RBI (70). There’s room for improvement, without a doubt.
The A’s place high value on defensive versatility, and Butler doesn’t offer much from that standpoint. He’s served almost strictly as a DH for the past several years. Not since 2010 has Butler seen even semi-regular time as a first baseman. Oakland often uses the DH spot as a chance to get some of its regular everyday players a half-day of rest. Surely the A’s will look to give 35-year-old center fielder Coco Crisp some time at DH next season in an effort to keep him fresh and healthy. Brandon Moss, coming off hip surgery, will be slated for time as the DH, among others.
It sure wouldn’t hurt to add someone who’s just a few months removed from that storybook run that Kansas City made to the World Series. Butler just seems like he’d be a good fit in the A’s clubhouse, and he’s coming from a team with similar payroll constraints as Oakland that nonetheless came within a game of winning it all. It’s tough to gauge just how much the intangibles count for when evaluating free agents, but Butler would add a nice ingredient for a team that’s struggled to solve the riddle of the playoffs. And that nickname – “Country Breakfast” … can’t you just see the crazies in the right field bleachers brainstorming their signs already?
Some hitters just don’t adjust to the pitcher-friendly Coliseum, and Butler’s career numbers in Oakland -- .252, three homers, 12 RBI in 31 games – don’t inspire. Not to mention that signing Butler would likely squeeze Nate Freiman and/or Kyle Blanks out of the roster picture. There’s only so many right-handed hitting DH/first base types a team can carry. Freiman has enjoyed stretches of production against lefties, and the A’s showed what they think of Blanks’ upside when they traded for him last season. And both come with a significantly cheaper price tag than Butler.
Despite the drop-off in production over the past two years, you’ve gotta think there’s plenty left in Butler’s tank given his age. Certainly he fits a need for the A’s as a right-handed hitter with power, but there’s also no doubt that he’s best suited as a DH. It’s tough to envision him fitting into the framework of how the A’s are operating right now.
As home run numbers have decreased across the board in the majors, power hitters with Butler’s pedigree are in demand. He’s reportedly drawing the interest of a number of teams. The Royals turned down Butler’s $12.5 million club option and don’t appear willing to re-sign him beyond two years. The feeling here is that Butler will be looking for a longer-term deal. He may just get it from the Mariners – looking to add run support for their excellent pitching – or perhaps Baltimore, which struck gold with slugger Nelson Cruz last winter. Regardless, don’t expect the A’s to be ordering the Country Breakfast in 2015.