The first domino has fallen in the Kansas City Royals’ offseason.
Billy Butler, the popular, one-time Royals hitting machine, has accepted a generous contract offer from the Oakland A’s, a sweetheart 3-year, $30 million deal.
The second domino will fall soon when ace pitcher James Shields signs what is expected to be an exorbitant contract from somebody other than the Royals that will pay him a lavish amount for what he brings to the locker room as much as his pitching. There’s been nary a whisper of the Royals getting involved in the Big Game James Sweepstakes, as he’s certainly not worth the $20 million a year the Red Sox, Yankees or Cubs will probably pay him.
Neither move was unexpected. While Royals fans were hoping that the team could work out a hometown discount with their longtime DH and middle-of-the-order bopper, the fact of the matter is Butler was considered a square peg in a round hole with the direction the team has taken.
The Royals banked on their speed, pitching and defense to come up one victory short of winning the second World Series title in franchise history.
Butler is none of those.
The numbers don’t lie. The slew-footed Butler has been in steady decline since his high-water days of 2012. He was a rally-killing destroyer by rolling over on balls and into doubleplays. His homer numbers had fallen off the charts, going from 29 to 9 in just two years. Even his doubles had withered and he seemed to have trouble driving the ball or getting it in the air. And while he played a surprisingly good first base in Eric Hosmer’s absence because of a hand injury in August, he’s simply not an everyday first baseman.
Yet, it’s hard to imagine the Royals without him. He’s been such a fixture and his nickname, “Country Breakfast,” is one of the best in baseball. He resembles that remark, given the fact he looks more like a slow-pitch softball player.
I really thought in the end, the Royals would work something out. While he’s in decline, he’s still better than most of the DHs teams trot out and a good clubhouse guy.
But the move gives the Royals some flexibility. They ran catcher Salvador Perez into the ground to the point he had nothing left in the tank offensively after August and became the wildest swinger since Thomas Hearns traded crazy bombs with Marvin Hagler. You could have rolled the ball on the ground by the end of the year and Perez would have swung at it, a byproduct of fatigue the Royals believe.
If the Royals can DH Perez about 25 or 30 games next year, he should be fresh if the team gets into the postseason. The Royals also could plug a speed guy into the spot — say Jarrod Dyson — and apply some serious pressure on opposing defenses.
That Kansas City is not standing pat after their near-miss is a good thing. Too often teams get close to winning the championship and bring back the same group, expecting a repeat. But it just doesn’t happen. Teams have to make moves, bring in different personalities. The fact the Royals are still a young team and became the nation’s darling should help them attract better-quality free agents.
In addition to Butler and Shields, I’ll be surprised if the Royals bring back Nori Aoki. He did have that one hot stretch in August when all his other teammates were faltering, but honestly I think the Royals considered his overall body of work disappointing. He wasn’t the on-base percentage ace the team expected and at times was clumsy in right field, which is far removed from the play of the other two outfielders Alex Gordon and Lorenzo Cain.
A starting pitcher and a right fielder should top the Royals’ shopping list. The loss of Shields’ innings-eating ability must be addressed because of the fragility of Yordano Ventura and Danny Duffy. Jason Vargas is a middle-of-the-road pitcher good for 200 innings while Jeremy Guthrie, while good in September and October, is realistically in the twilight of his career.
I’d like to see the Royals get a right fielder who could hit about .280 with 20-25 homers and 85-90 RBIs. While they do a great job of stringing singles and doubles together to score runs, it’s still comforting to know that one swing of the bat can produce three runs.
What Royals fans can’t get caught up in is history repeating itself, that everything is going to fall into place for a second straight year. There’s no way the bullpen can produce a year like 2014 and the defense can’t make an endless string of highlight-reel catches.
Then there’s the always-maddening Hosmer and Mike Moustakas, the supposed future cornerstones of the franchise. Are they really going to be stars or have we seen their best, which for Hosmer is pretty good and Moustakas is pretty bad if you throw out his postseason homers.
We have a long way to go in the offseason and I’m sure the Royals will be active with some moves. Let’s hope they make the team stronger, not weaken it.