Ever since the Royals traded Johnny Damon to the Oakland A’s before the 2001 season, the left field position has been a massive black hole at Kauffman Stadium. Since that time, the organization has shuffled through the likes of failed prospects like Dee Brown, Mark Quinn, Byron Gettis, and Alexis Gomez and washed-up veterans such as Chuck Knoblauch and David McCarty. They even allowed Ken Harvey to play out there for 30 interleague innings in 2004. When Raul Ibanez and his lifetime .803 OPS is without question your organization’s finest left fielder of the last five years, well, you have quite a bit of work to do.
This season, the bulk of the playing time to David DeJesus’ right has gone to Terrence Long, who has been absolutely terrible this year:
AB AVG OBP SLG
377 .276 .313 .374
If you think that’s bad, consider this: Terrence has actually been marginally productive against right-handed pitchers, hitting .285/.325/.410 in 288 at-bats. In 85 at-bats against lefties, however, Long has managed only a .235/.256/.247, good for an isolated power (slugging percentage minus batting average) figure of .012. That’s right. Heading into the last full month of the season, Long didn’t have one 2005 extra-base hit against a left-hander until Friday night, when he doubled off of Kenny Rogers. That even underperforms the modest expectations I set for him after he was acquired for Darrell May in early November.
Thankfully, T-Long’s horrid production pretty much assures that he won’t be back with the Royals next year, leaving his corner outfield spot wide open for the 2006 season. Barring a trade or a free agent acquisition (friend of KRB David Sanford did a write-up on that topic at Royals Corner), it looks like next spring’s competition for the opening day left field job will be between two guys who’re with the Royals right now, Matt Diaz and Chip Ambres, and one who’ll probably be up when Double-A Wichita’s season ends (Shane Costa). The loser (or losers) of the battle would probably stay on the 25-man roster in a backup role.
The “winner,” however, wouldn’t be much more than a winner by default. I have big questions about Diaz’s plate discipline and hitting mechanics, and Ambres’ and Costa’s power-hitting abilities. All three players have been productive enough in the minor leagues to foreshadow careers as fourth outfielders, but unless one or more of them breaks out and starts hitting the ball hard consistently, not one player out of that trio will be a long-term answer to the left field hole.
With all that said, the Royals have a guy in Double-A right now who, after getting off to a slow start at that level, has demolished Texas League pitching. And at some point in 2006, Billy Butler will permanently displace whoever’s playing left field (unless Allard Baird finds a way to acquire Adam Dunn, which would be awesome).
Butler, the 14th overall pick in the 2004 draft, is quickly becoming one of the finest hitting prospects in all of baseball. In a sense, that’s probably a surprise to a few people who viewed Butler more as a signability pick than the best player available at that spot. However, none of those people were with the Royals’ draft team, as the organization believed that the Florida native was the best hitter left on the board, and that his willingness to sign quickly was just a bonus. Thankfully, the Royals were right, and Butler’s been a “signability guy” like Joe Mauer was for the Twins.
The proof’s in the production. After signing with the Royals, Butler was sent to low Single-A Idaho Falls, began this season at high Single-A High Desert, and was promoted to Double-A Wichita this summer. I’m generally not one to emphasize batting average as a good metric to evaluate a hitter, but while looking at Butler’s hitting lines at each of those three stops, pay particular attention to the average column and try to not be amazed:
AB AVG OBP SLG OPS
Idaho Falls 260 .373 .488 .596 1.084
High Desert 379 .348 .419 .636 1.055
Wichita 109 .312 .353 .523 .876
Butler's struggled since moving from High Desert to Wichita -- which is a VERY big jump -- but all told, he's hit .352 with a .606 slugging percentage in his pro career. Sure, you have to account for the extreme hitters’ environments Butler’s played in at each of the three levels, but a guy hitting .352 in the first 748 at-bats of his career is outstanding anywhere, especially when you consider that Butler has supplemented his high averages with good plate discipline (0.14 walks per at-bat) and great extra-base hit ability (.254 isolated power).
Those lines would be great for anybody, but when you consider that Butler won’t turn 20 until April 18 of next year, they become even greater and more encouraging for his future as a ballplayer. Many of the truly great players in baseball history have made it to the majors at very young ages, most well before their 25th birthdays.
As if that wasn’t awesome enough, Butler’s statistical lines aren’t the only thing that portray him as a future great power hitter in baseball. After looking at this video from MLB.com and this video from CalLeaguers.com, it’s clear that Butler’s hitting mechanics are outstanding. He’s balanced throughout, has his hands in the perfect hitting position just before he swings, and has a high and powerful follow-through. It doesn't look like he's even trying.
Still, none of that’s to say that there aren’t concerns. Butler still strikes out a little bit too much for my liking, taking or swinging through strike three in about 22 percent of his career at-bats. He’s also going to have to continue to work in left field and improve defensively so he doesn’t have to become a full-time designated hitter at a very young age.
At this point, those are the only two aspects of his game that I’d like to see him improve upon. He’s well on his way towards becoming part of a well above-average offense in Kansas City that’ll also include DeJesus, Justin Huber, Alex Gordon, Mark Teahen, and Mike Sweeney.
- >> Arkansas' double-play combo of Erick Aybar and Howie Kendrick was a LOT of fun to watch. The Travs turned four twin killings, and Aybar and Kendrick were in the thick of each of 'em. On the offensive side of things, Aybar went 1-4, but drew two walks and stole three bases. Kendrick was on base three times with two singles and a double.
>> Springfield starter and 2004 first-round pick Chris Lambert lasted two-thirds of an inning, allowing six runs on three hits. Lambert had a very disappointing season at the Double-A level, finishing 3-8 with a 6.35 ERA.
>> Remember Rick Ankiel? He started in right field yesterday and finished his season with a bang, hitting two home runs (the first of which being a long 380-foot shot to right), drawing a walk, and scoring three times to lead the Springfield offense. Rick still swings like a pitcher, but I think he has enough ability to hold down a backup outfielder role for St. Louis. In 136 Double-A at-bats, Ankiel hit .243 with a .515 slugging percentage.
>> While we're on the subject of retreads and reclamation projects, former Cardinals top prospect Alan Benes threw two innings of scoreless ball in mop-up duty.
I never dreamed a city the size of Springfield, Mo. would have something like that, but we do, and I'm damn proud of it.
If Baird decides to move Affeldt this winter, I really hope he can work out a deal with the Braves. Under Rockin' Leo Mazzone's tutilage, Affeldt may have a long career yet as a Mike Remlinger-type.