ESPN's Buster Olney has been talking to "some executives" who "believe that Oakland might try to attach the remaining dollars on the contract of designated hitter Billy Butler to [Rich] Hill." The meat of the rumor is above the Insider-only break, but I don't think I'm giving away insider secrets when he declares the "Dodgers, Yankees, and Red Sox" as teams that could use a starting pitcher and have the cash to take on Butler's salary.
The idea is that richer teams with money to spare could have a leg up on teams that don't because they can also take Billy Butler's contract off Oakland's hands. With around $15 million (give or take) to go on Butler's deal by the time trade season is in full swing, lower payroll clubs will have to boost their prospect offerings to make up for the lack of cash. Of course, by definition, a team that acquires Rich Hill is "Richer."
It's the same equation as any other trade, with a money part added in. If the value of "players received + money saved > Rich Hill + Billy Butler," execute the deal. "Value" means different things to different people: The value of continuity, the value of retaining one's stars, the value of planning for the future, the value of hope.
I could go into the nitty-gritty of what the deal could look like, or even whether the A's should trade Rich Hill at all, with or without saddling Billy Butler's contract on a deal. I even had a line all planned out for how refinancing the Billy Butler contract into the farm effectively is the same as mortgaging the future, but I'm not going to indict the front office for a move they haven't even made yet rumored by people that aren't them. I'll leave potential deals to the comments.
What is interesting is the question of what is the value of Billy Butler on this date? Not what he was at the start of the season. Not what he would have been had he stayed on as a platoon DH? What is he today?
Billy Butler is actually good ... as a platoon first baseman
Hey remember how
excited informed we all were at the prospect of a platoon at first base between Yonder Alonso and Mark Canha, where Canha would occasionally also play against right-handers if Alonso was injured or in the outfield? Well, Mark Canha is out, and Billy Butler is the new platoon first baseman, and he's actually not bad!
Butler is hitting lefties at a .326/.370/.512 clip in 46 plate appearances with a home run, five doubles, three walks, and seven strikeouts. On the A's, his 139 wRC+ is only behind Danny Valencia (271(!)) and Jake Smolinski (181 in 10 PA). Against lefties, Butler is producing the way you might expect a first baseman with only an okay glove to produce.
Among 38 players with at least 20 plate appearances against left-handers classified as first basemen on FanGraphs, Billy Butler ranks sixth vs. LHP in wRC+, ahead of guys like Arizona's Paul Goldschmidt (127, .255/.453/.383) and Seattle's Dae-Ho Lee (130, .271/.314/.521).
Butler's performance against left-handers might even be sustainable. Even as he struggled in 2015 and 2014 to produce as an everyday designated hitter, he still hit lefties at decent clip. Since 2014, Butler has hit lefties .269/.361/.419 (117 wRC+). Last year, Butler's worst against lefties, he still showed good plate discipline with a 17.2 percent walk rate (7th of 224 hitters with 100 PA vs. LHP).
It's hard to make conclusions about whether Butler's batted ball profile is significantly different as he'd only put 36 balls in play against left-handers in 36 plate appearances. What has rescued Butler so far against them is a career-low 41.7 percent (15 of 36) ground ball rate and a career high 33.3 percent (12 of 36) line drive rate. At his career norm of 20.3% against left-handers, Butler should only have seven or eight line drives by now.
What could the A's do instead?
Billy Butler has a value that's greater than zero, but of course it's still less than the $15 million or so owed to him. The A's have June and July to decide what they want to do with Butler, and the question will be who is available to take over Butler's space on the short side of the first base platoon.
A player who could play first base when opposing a left-handed pitcher and also hit well enough to play another position against a right-hander would be the ideal. Right-handed batter Ryon Healy's extremely hot start in Double-A and Triple-A has me wondering whether the A's might rethink the depth chart at the corner infield spots. Renato Nunez has cooled off some, and Matt Olson is a left-handed hitter the A's appear to be trying to groom into taking over right field.
Before getting too carried away with Healy, however, keep in mind that he has taken over half of his Triple-A plate appearances in higher-elevation Las Vegas and Salt Lake City. Again, there's still a couple of months the A's can use to evaluate here.
There's nothing to say that the A's couldn't just keep Butler and accept some cash in a Rich Hill deal for prospects to open up other opportunities. Any Rich Hill deal is likely to be a blockbuster, considering the scarcity of short-term high-quality starting pitchers available in trade. The number of potential major infield reconfigurations the A's could make that point are too numerous to count.
What if they don't trade Rich Hill at all?
The A's could very well just do nothing or even make a "buy now" trade out of their wealth of Triple-A corner infield prospects. Let the A's pick up the compensatory draft pick for making a qualifying offer to Rich Hill or better, get him on another one-year deal. Between Mark Canha and Oakland's first base prospects, there will be plenty of choices to push Billy Butler back into a platoon DH role or off the team entirely.
For now, Billy Butler has done good when kept to left-handers, and at first base that's just not something that can be reliably reproduced by any other player in the organization right now.
If you want upgrades this year, focus your attention on Chris Coghlan's poor performance. Notice how Coco Crisp, despite exceeding expectations for his health, has neither the range anymore to make up for his well-known poor arm nor the on base percentage to be more than a below average hitter. Debate how much Yonder Alonso needs to improve at the plate for his defense to make up for it.
Billy Butler has his role now and is fitting it well. I don't think Coghlan and Crisp are, and both are free agents at the end of the year (Crisp's option won't vest if he continues to play this poorly). My bold prediction is that the A's will upgrade from both of them before upgrading from Billy Butler. The 2016 A's and beyond will be better for it.