For months, Vegas has taken in nearly a billion dollars in prop bets, mostly from members of this esteemed community, wagering when Billy Butler would take his final at bat in an Oakland A's uniform. For the first two weeks of the season, things looked stable for Butler. He's found a nice niche, even if it's extra niche-y, and seems to have a role on this team. But over the past few days, a convergence of factors have swirled like a tornado, prompting the question: is it time?
There aren't many opportunities for Butler
Butler is firmly entrenched in a platoon DH role. He's only made it to the plate 22 times thus far, two of those as a pinch hitter. It makes sense, the A's have better options against right handed pitchers and Butler's defensive limitations make him a sub-optimal pinch hitter, if only slightly. He just doesn't have a ton of utility if he can't hit right handed pitching and right now, he hasn't been given the opportunity.
Platoon DHs are pretty rare, but that doesn't mean the A's can't or shouldn't do it. Butler's presence as a short side platoon DH isn't harmful in a vacuum, but we're not in a vacuum.
The A's are entering a particularly righty heavy stretch
Since departing Oakland on Monday, the A's have faced two hard throwing right handers and consequently, Butler has yet to start. Until their next off day on Cinco de Mayo (that means May 5th for those of you non-Spanish speakers out there), the A's are scheduled to face just one left handed pitcher in 14 total games, meaning a single start for Butler.
Of course, you could probably slot Butler in for at least some of those righties, just so he remembers what it's like to swing a bat. On the flip side, it's not hard to see the A's without Butler for that span.
Will Butler maintain his stats in a platoon?
Say what you will about Billy Butler, his health and ability to stay in the lineup has never been a question. Since 2009, Butler has appeared in at least 151 games every year, even playing in all 162 in 2013. It's an impressive feat even for a DH, but it might work against him as a potential platoon partner.
Butler's career .884 OPS against lefties would be nice in the lineup, roster spots aside, but can he maintain that number if he's taken out of the routine he's grown so accustomed to in his ten year career?
In a recent piece by John Shea in the San Francisco Chronicle, Butler makes a pretty clear point.
"Now, that being said, I know they like to do the matchup stuff. But lefty-righty matchups kind of go out the window when you don't have at-bats, because of the comfortability factor. Every hitter needs to see pitches to keep the timing."
It'd be easy to find fault with what Butler's saying, especially since he doesn't have the best track record with the media in his time with the A's, but he's got a point. Hitting a high velocity spherical object with a wooden stick is stupid hard to begin with, doing so with a sporadic calendar is even more difficult.
Hitting is complicated and messing with timing can make it impossible, especially for a guy like Butler who played almost every game for the better part of his career. If he can't handle the difficulties that accompany being in a platoon, it doesn't make sense to keep him on the roster.
Danny Valencia's absence hurts the A's infield depth
In spite of their overall positional depth, the A's don't have a particularly deep infield. With Danny Valencia out with a sore hamstring, the A's essentially don't have a backup infielder to play second, third, or short if needed. Chris Coghlan will be pressed into everyday duty in spite of his noted struggles against left handed pitching and if Jed Lowrie or Marcus Semien need a day off, well, tough luck.
At this point, it's unclear how long Valencia will be out. He's listed as day to day and Valencia insists he shouldn't be out long, though athletes aren't typically the type to say when they're not good to go. If his ailment is more serious than originally thought, the A's could simply place Valencia on the DL and call up a Tyler Ladendorf from AAA. However if Valencia is injury limbo, not bad enough to be DL'd but bad enough to miss a few games - and it should be noted the A's aren't usually eager to place a player on the DL - the A's could be without a backup infielder for an awkward and important amount of time.
How does that relate to Butler? His role on this team is slightly tenuous even with a healthy squad. With Valencia down and the A's needing a roster spot? Things look a little more dicey.
It's unlikely the A's will DFA Butler for three days or so of Tyler Ladendorf, but combined with other factors, it's not a huge stretch.
The A's probably need another player, too
Thanks to outstanding starting pitching combined with bullpen dominance, the A's have made it through their first two weeks of the season unscathed in spite of not having a long reliever.
The A's are in a bit of a tough situation in regards to a swing man - the man who took the (very last) roster spot, one which should have gone to Felix Doubront in a long reliever role, has been one of the team's best relievers. Ryan Dull finally gave up a hit last night, a long homerun in a low leverage situation.
While the bullpen hasn't been ridiculously overworked, many relievers have appeared many times and it feels as though most nights Bob Melvin is calling the number of a high leverage guy. Indeed, there are 49 relievers who have pitched in eight or nine games (tops in the league) and four of those are A's.
Not all of that is the function of not having a long reliever, it's mostly due to the A's historic record of playing in close games combined with the starters' weird ability to dominate for short-ish outings. But sooner or later, the A's will need a long reliever, and regardless, it'll help lessen the load on the pen.
Long relievers are like toilet plungers - you really don't want to find yourself needing one but not having one. With the current exhausting stretch of schedule, it's easy to envision the A's needing a long reliever sometime soon, like say, Sunday, when Eric Surkamp pitches against Marcus Stroman and Josh Donaldson.
Of course, the pitching side of things is probably less related to Butler's spot. Finding room for a long reliever will probably require some finagling with the existing bunch of pitchers or more likely, waiting for an inevitable injury. But if the bullpen finds themselves particularly taxed after facing a tough bunch in Toronto, well...
Are the A's willing to cut such an expensive player?
In baseball terms, Butler's contract really isn't that bad. It sounds crazy, but a bad ten million dollar player won't prevent the club from competing. You could even argue that Butler wasn't even the worst DH signing of that single free agent class! Bad signings happen and relatively speaking, Butler's was low impact.
The A's do seem to want to be rid of Butler, although appears to be a hurdle.
@jmatthewsmedia Zero interest in Butler; they have tried to trade him. Too much $$ to release him. Though it may come to that.— Susan Slusser (@susanslusser) April 21, 2016
So it seems like a Butler release is a possibility, although not an immediate one. It will be interesting to track as roster moves are needed and injuries shake things up, but it seems like there are no moves on the horizon.
Writing about the proper time to shed a baseball player isn't a fun task. Butler hasn't won a lot of fans in his time in Oakland, but I don't think many wish him malice, either. These days, retiring from baseball seems to be a tale of two paths.
1. A player takes an obnoxious victory lap, holding his team back in the process and forcing the nation to put on its collective best manners and pretend they haven't hated said player all along. Or,
2. A player is unceremoniously kicked out of baseball, seemingly just minutes after his prime. The fall from grace is usually hard and swift, the time it takes to turn from a star to a nobody is but a speck of time compared to the time it take to climb to the top.
Billy Butler obviously falls under #2, and I realize after writing that I probably should have switched those numbers. At any rate, it's painful to watch someone lose what defined him for the better part of his life. While I think the A's are better suited without Butler, I wish him nothing but the best and hope he can find his way for some team that doesn't play the A's in an important game anytime soon.
Deciding if and when to move on from Billy Butler isn't easy. The A's have carried Butler thus far and clearly believe he deserves the chance to redeem himself. He hasn't had that opportunity yet, and DFAing him now would seemingly be at odds with the initial decision to roll with him as a platoon DH. But with injuries, a long road trip, and a schedule stacked with righties, you have to wonder. Is it time to move on from Billy Butler?