With Zack Greinke now a Milwaukee Brewer, the last thing Royals fans want to think about is another of their team's few established stars leaving Kauffman Stadium. No, it's not Joakim Soria, but rather Billy Butler. The young first baseman is headed to arbitration for the first time this winter, and how the Royals approach this situation will tell us if the club considers Butler to be part of their long-term plans.
Butler, 24, has blossomed into one of the game's up-and-coming stars, posting an .855 OPS over the last two seasons as Kansas City's everyday first baseman. Even though his home run numbers dropped from 21 in 2009 to 15 last season, Butler is still far and away the biggest threat in the K.C. lineup, especially now that David DeJesus has been traded.
With Butler's production and young age in mind, surely it makes sense for the Royals to sign Butler to an extension that carries at least through his arbitration years, right? Well, not necessarily. The Royals already have another promising first baseman on the major league roster in Kila Ka'aihue, and another (Eric Hosmer) is one of the top prospects in K.C.'s vaunted minor league system.
Ka'aihue got his first significant taste of major league playing time last season. He posted a .702 OPS in 206 plate appearances overall, and hit .274/.361/.548 playing every day in September. The Hawaii native has put up big minor league numbers over the last three years, and though it took him six years just to reach Triple-A, Ka'aihue began his pro career at age 18 and only turns 27 in March.
Hosmer was picked third overall by K.C. in the 2008 amateur draft, and has so far lived up to that selection by hitting .298/.378/.483 in his three pro seasons. Hosmer is projected to move up to Triple-A in 2011 and barring any unexpected setbacks will be a huge part of the Royals' future.
The question facing the cash-conscious Royals is simple: do they lock up Butler now in the hopes that he'll be entering his prime years when the club is ready to contend in 2013, or do the Royals shop Butler at the trade deadline and see if they can score even more premium prospects for the first baseman? If Butler is dealt, then Ka'aihue takes over first base duties and it frees up the DH spot for Hosmer in 2012 and beyond (or, vice versa, with Hosmer at first and Ka'aihue as the DH).
If the Royals sign Butler to a big multi-year extension, then they're going all-in with him and Ka'aihue becomes the one on the trading block once Hosmer is ready. If the Royals sign Butler to just a one-year contract for 2011 (worth probably between $3-4MM), then the team is basically just holding off on any long-term decisions until they can see what they really have in Ka'aihue and Hosmer. If I had to guess, I'd say the latter option is more likely to happen, though K.C. might also feel a Butler deal covering two arbitration years makes financial sense and gives a team a bit of good local press in the wake of the Greinke trade.