First off, this is not going to be a rant on how bad Billy Butler is at baseball because that's too easy. With a slash line of .238/.306/.362 and an astonishing 20 DPs grounded into (astonishing because it feels more like 50), clearly 2015 has been worst-case scenario for a guy who, for all his many flaws, has generally been known as a good hitter.
What scares me is the temptation for the A's to gamble on a "bounce back year" from Butler in 2016, given that Oakland is on the hook for $20M over the next two years and given that Butler has "nowhere to go but up". It would be somewhat bold for the A's to release Butler at season's end -- or hopefully convince another team to take him if the A's pay the lion's share of his salary -- but it would also be the right move.
In fact, I'm willing to go so far as to say that if the A's don't move Butler this off-season, they are messing up yet again and if there's anything worse than making a colossal blunder with Billy Butler, it's making two.
First and foremost, let's call a spade a spade: Butler could improve upon his 2015 numbers and still be bad. Sure he has, at times, hit into bad luck with hard drives run down by outfielders or speared by infielders, and that might lead you to hope he is a rabbit's foot away from a great season. He isn't.
Butler could easily "bounce back" to hit .250/.320/.380 and if that underwhelms you remember that Butler is not even entirely the product of his slash line. Just the past 48 hours serve as reminders of how quickly he can kill budding rallies with DPs, how he can't score from 2B on base hits to the outfield or get to 2B on balls that roll into the RF corner. So it's not that Butler has had bad luck, it's that unless he has unbelievably good luck he is going to be a liability in the lineup.
However, Oakland's roster construction does not occur in a vacuum and the issue of carrying, or not carrying Butler going forward is not just about Butler himself. His presence, or absence, will impact decisions elsewhere around the roster and around the diamond.
One decision Oakland faces this off-season is in regards to left field. If the A's count on Coco Crisp to be their primary left fielder, and don't go out to bring a new COFer into the mix, it doesn't take a soothsayer to know Oakland will soon be playing a lot of Sam Fuld, Jake Smolinksi against RHPs, and other less than ideal stopgap solutions. On the other hand, if the A's go shopping for a good every day LFer, with Butler clogging up (and I do pick my words carefully) DH it leaves Coco Crisp in complete limbo.
Regarding Crisp, I think the best solution lies in solving left field and slotting Crisp in as a primary DH who can move to LF when injuries create a need. Is Crisp your ideal DH? No. But when healthy he can provide some value in a lineup. I would like to see the A's free up the DH spot for Crisp, by way of committing to a regular LFer (who can potentially platoon with Smolinski) to shore up one key weakness in Oakland's current regime.
If you allow Butler to bring his unique brand of awful to the DH spot, you are left in limbo with Crisp in LF in theory but often not in practice. In contrast, if you commit to bringing in a good LFer, you also upgrade the DH spot in my opinion: I'm willing to go out on a big you-know-what limb and say that Crisp is a more useful hitter than Butler at this stage of each man's career.
It would be somewhat bold for the A's to punt on 2 years and $20M of a contract -- or best case scenario, probably, to eat $15M of it to convince a team to take a chance on Butler -- but to me it's absolutely essential. With the payroll flexibility to do so, the A's need to be aggressive and resourceful this off-season to shore up a couple lingering weaknesses that amount to cracks in an otherwise solid foundation.
The A's ended up with two regrettable contracts in Butler and Crisp, though fortunately neither is crippling even to a small-market team. The difference is that the A's can still get value from Crisp -- if they don't set up their team to rely on him playing most every day and forego the chance to improve themselves in the outfield. Penciling Crisp in at DH, and having him available to play LF, is a great "save" for the one more year Oakland is committed to Coco.
The Butler contract is more aggravating because Butler was never going to provide any defensive value, or value on the bases. He was always at most a one-dimensional player and it turns out that the A's overrated him by one dimension. Now he is not only clogging bases and lineups, but going forward he also hamstrings the construction of the roster.
Admit a mistake, let him go, get some of his contract absorbed elsewhere if you can, and embrace addition by subtraction. Combining their existing talent and payroll flexibility, I believe the A's can put together a competitive team in 2016 without Butler even if they have to absorb his entire salary. I am just not nearly as convinced they can do so with him.