There is no way around the fact that Billy Butler has been a free agent flop in 2015. From the start, the signing was a decent idea at best, a long-term contract for a player with a bit of upside but also zero margin for error given his one-dimensional skill set. I tried to get excited about him before the season, but he spent the summer falling short of my expectation that he'd be a lefty-masher who could bring the DH spot back to life. His hot September has somewhat salvaged his overall numbers, but it's been too little too late in the court of public opinion.
That leaves the A's with a player whose only skill is hitting but who had his second straight poor season at the plate, without any specific reason to hope for improvement, signed for two years and around $20 million. That's not a great situation to be in, but I assure you that Butler is not untradeable because no player is.
Vernon Wells, already ineffective in his early-30s, once held what was arguably the most untradeable contract in baseball, and before it was up he'd been traded twice -- once with $85 million left and again with more than $40 million remaining. Melvin Upton was moved in April with more than $30 million owed to him after two straight negative-bWAR campaigns, the Tigers shed $90 million of Prince Fielder's deal when nobody believed he'd last into his 30s, and the Red Sox got out of more than $150 million worth of Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett when both were injured messes. A measly $20 million? Billy Beane can find a place for that if he wants to.
Fortunately, Butler helped matters slightly with his season-ending hot streak. In 107 plate appearances in September, he's batting .316/.374/.551 with six home runs -- he didn't have more than three dingers in any other month, and he didn't even rack up six total in any two consecutive months combined. His BABIP returned to a favorable-but-still-reasonable level, and he even had a couple big highlight moments. It wasn't enough to restore my confidence in him, but it was just enough to plant that seed of doubt, the one that suggests maybe there's still something left in the tank. Sometimes, that seed is all you need to promote a player from "don't buy" to "buy low." Like I said, there's no specific reason for hope, like an injury that he was playing through or a stat that suggests bad luck was his biggest flaw, but now there's a vague reason.
So, let's remove from our minds the concept that the A's are completely stuck with Butler. He's not owed that much money, relatively speaking, and Oakland happens to employ one of the most clever GMs in the game. Here are three ways Billy Beane can find him a new home.
1. Swap him for another bad contract
This is how the Tigers got rid of Prince, sort of, though Ian Kinsler's deal was only "bad" for the Rangers because they thought they had several stud middle infielders being blocked on the depth chart. In this scenario, two teams each have players on large contracts, but the players make more sense on each other's teams.
The A's have no use for Butler, because they have plenty of options to play first base, DH, and/or be the right-handed bat off the bench -- Mark Canha, Stephen Vogt, Coco Crisp, Jake Smolinski, Rangel Ravelo and Max Muncy can all play at least one of those roles. But perhaps they could use someone else's overpriced veteran outfielder or innings-eating starting pitcher, while that other team could use an extra righty hitter like Butler, hungry to reprove himself off the bench. Presumably the A's would have to add a bit of salary to their payroll here, and you may argue that is simply doubling down on a previous mistake. But would you rather pay $20 million and get nothing while wasting at-bats, or $30 million and at least have a player who makes some sense?
One target I've thought about is Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro. His downsides are that he had an awful 2015 season, he's signed for four more years and $39 million, and young studs like Addison Russell and Javier Baez are pushing him for playing time in Chicago. In fact, in July, the Cubs couldn't wait to get rid of him. His upsides, though, are that he's a middle infielder instead of a lumpy DH, he'll still only be 26 next season, and he's already got a couple of three-win seasons under his belt. He's on a Butler-like September hot streak right now, but even more pronounced, with a 1.202 OPS that is powered by a surprising number of homers but also an unsustainable BABIP.
I doubt there's really a match there. If Castro combines that hot September with some spectacular postseason moment(s) in October, then I suppose the Cubs might be compelled to hang on to him (or be able to trade him for something better). I also don't really know what the they would want with Butler, especially with Anthony Rizzo locking down first base. But that's just it -- they could cut Butler immediately and still save nearly $20 million by dumping Castro, if they indeed don't want him anymore. It's a far-fetched scenario, but it's also less ridiculous than Vernon Wells for a not-expensive Mike Napoli.
But it doesn't have to be (and probably won't be) Castro. Look around the league for outfielders or pitchers. For the next two years, would you rather pay $20 million to Butler while he blocks better hitters, or pay $24 million to Ricky Nolasco to be the long man in the bullpen? Ubaldo Jimenez still has some value, but not enough to justify the $26 million still coming to him; what would the A's have to add to make that swap for some veteran pitching depth, right as the potential departure of Chris Davis could open up Baltimore's DH spot in a stadium Butler could maybe actually homer in? Is there a way to work out a deal for Jayson Werth, or even Melvin Upton himself, both owed $10-20 million more than Butler?
None of those specific names have to be the one. The point is, there are other bad players out there who make as much or more than Butler does, and some of them play positions where they won't be such hindrances. I don't actually want any of the guys I've listed, but if I have to have an eight-digit deadweight on the roster then I'd rather it be one of them than Butler. All it takes is one of those teams seeing some upside in Butler's bat after posting a wRC+ of 100 in 2015, and deciding they'd rather have him than their own deadweight that they're tired of carrying around.
2. Sweeten the deal
This is how the Braves got rid of Melvin, by also giving up Craig Kimbrel in the deal. In this scenario, a team wants to shed salary but not take much or any back, so instead they also give up something of value without getting anything much of value in return. Instead of positive-for-positive or negative-for-negative, it's positive and negative for nothing, more or less. The sweetener can be a good/promising player, cash, or a combination of both. There is also the option to sweeten things to the point where you also get something of value in return, but that is not a requirement.
The best example of this one is the recent Bronson Arroyo trade. The D'Backs used a top prospect to get the Braves to take on nearly $10 million in salary for an injured and ineffective veteran. This particular trade was awful, because Arizona parted with far too good of a prospect for far too little savings. But if you downgraded the prospect to, say, Raul Alcantara (only the No. 6 pitcher in the A's system now), could that be a starting point to dump $20 million? I haven't thought about how high I'd go on the prospect ladder to ditch Butler, but remember it's not just about the money -- it's also getting playing time for guys who are already on the roster and whom I simply believe in more. Heck, just staple $15 million to his jersey and see if another team will take a cheap flyer on him in return for the next Dawrin Frias peppercorn.
3. Waive goodbye
This is how the A's got rid of Esteban Loaiza in 2007, and how the Blue Jays got rid of Alex Rios in 2009. In this scenario, you simply waive the player. Buh-bye. Maybe someone picks up the rest of his contract, in which case you're off the hook! But more likely no one does, in which case you pay the player (which you were already doing anyway) but at least don't have him cluttering up your team anymore.
Loaiza and Rios both still had something to offer, Loaiza as pitching depth during a pennant race and Rios as an enigmatic mid-20s player with clear latent talent (that ended up returning the next year). They were also both mid-August pickups, whereas if Butler is made available during the offseason there will be plenty of alternative options for other teams to choose from. But again, the point isn't that someone has to claim him; the point is that he has to be gone, and that this route at least opens the door to the possibility that someone will pick up his salary. He might never look more attractive than he does after this September surge, and Kendrys Morales will be sitting there as an example of how a even 32-year-old DH can magically bounce back from rock bottom.
All of this might sound a bit harsh on Butler. After all, his numbers have stabilized and he has shown that he can at least hit well for a month at a time; there's no guarantee that Canha or Muncy or Coco or whoever could do better than a league-average stat line in his place. But a team built on versatility cannot survive with a dedicated DH who can't be relied on to hit better than average, and an offense built on scrapping together prolonged rallies rather than swatting 3-run homers can't feature a hitter with the slowest footspeed and the second-most GIDPs in MLB.
The $20 million is already sunk, and I wouldn't just concede it without at least searching for a taker. But I would eat at least 75% of it, or divert it to a washed-up veteran pitcher, in order to remove an atrociously miscast player from a roster that can't afford to drag him along for another year.