It's no secret that the Tigers' biggest priority this offseason will be to re-sign Victor Martinez. In fact, that task might be written in large enough print to cover number two and three on the to-do list. Martinez has indicated that he wants to be back, and he was sure to let us know that the Tigers are aware of this fact.
That said, the Tigers need a Plan B no matter how confident they are that they will be able to retain their 2014 MVP. If Martinez leaves, the Tigers could do worse than to look directly south in the standings, where the Kansas City Royals are unlikely to pick up Billy Butler's contract option for 2015.
*2015 Steamer projection
Who is he?
It seems like he has been around forever, but Butler, a right-handed designated hitter, is still just 28 years old. He was drafted out of high school by the Royals with the 14th overall pick in the 2004 draft and made his MLB debut less than three years later. Just 21 years old, Butler quickly established himself as a solid hitter with extra base power. He collected 33 extra base hits and a .794 OPS in 360 plate appearances during his rookie season and did not look back. Eight years later, Butler is a career .295/.359/.449 hitter with an All-Star appearance to his name.
Why should we care?
For years, Billy Ray Butler has been one of the most underrated hitters in baseball. He has hit .300 or better on three separate occasions, and had five consecutive seasons with an on-base percentage north of .360. He has a pair of 20 homer seasons under his belt despite playing in one of the most pitcher-friendly ballparks in the league and has driven in 90 runs three times. He has also been very durable, playing in 158 games or more in five consecutive seasons from 2009 to 2013. Sure, that doesn't mean as much as a designated hitter, but it's still nice to see.
Looking deeper, Butler's career splits also provide some incentive to making him the future DH. He crushes left-handed pitching, collecting a career .313 batting average and .393 on-base percentage. His numbers against right-handers are pretty good as well, with a .288 batting average and .771 career OPS. Butler also played very well at Kauffman Stadium, hitting .312/.377/.472. His road splits were somewhat subpar, but in 289 career plate appearances at Comerica Park he is hitting .330/.374/.492 with eight home runs and 17 doubles. Most of his home run power goes to the pull field, but he has the ability to hit from foul line to foul line.
And while Butler won't provide any actual value on defense, he won't be facing Justin Verlander anymore either. Is it fair to label that "subtraction by addition?"
Why should we stay away?
Butler hasn't quite been the same player over the past couple seasons. He hit for a respectable .289 average with an excellent .374 on-base percentage last season, but slugged just .412. It was his lowest slugging total since 2008 and his .124 ISO was tied with '08 for the lowest in his career. His career high 11.8 percent walk rate was his saving grace, resulting in a decent .345 wOBA and 117 wRC+.
Fast forward to 2014, and the wheels seemingly fell off. Butler hit just .271/.323/.379 in 603 plate appearances with nine home runs and 66 RBI. The home run and RBI totals were his lowest since his rookie season (when he had 40 percent fewer plate appearances) and all of his slash line totals were the worst of his career. He also posted the lowest walk rate of his career, and it was his second season with a sub-100 wRC+. He showed more aggression than usual, swinging at a higher percentage of pitches overall and a higher percentage of pitches outside the strike zone than at any point in his career. Given those facts, it comes as no surprise that he had the highest whiff rate since his rookie year. For someone coming into their prime as a power hitter, all of these -- including the career-worst .107 ISO -- are big concerns.
In addition to Butler himself, there are also issues with how he fits on this team. No, not in the clubhouse -- he seems like a jolly dude, what with his own barbecue sauce and all -- but in the lineup. For the last few years, the Tigers have had a left-handed power bat in either Victor Martinez or Prince Fielder in the middle of the order. Is it a major issue? Not particularly, especially if Butler bounces back in 2015. But it has the potential to be. The Tigers had a .789 OPS against left-handed pitchers as a team last year, but just a .745 OPS against righties.
In reality, all of this depends on whether the Tigers re-sign Martinez. If Victor comes back, Butler goes elsewhere. If the Tigers aren't able to re-up their DH, then Butler jumps to the top of the potential free agent pecking order. He's definitely a bigger risk, but if Butler could return to the guy who terrorized the AL from 2009 to 2012, then the Tigers could feasibly fill the hole in the middle of their lineup for half of what Martinez will cost in 2015.