Should the St. Louis Cardinals Regret Letting Joey Butler Go?


Just over a year ago (May 23, 2014), the St. Louis Cardinals released outfielder Joey Butler, allowing the 28-year-old to explore playing opportunities in Japan, two days after they had chosen to give Shane Robinson another chance in the big leagues while returning Butler to Triple-A.

The move was rather nondescript at the time, as Butler was part of a glut of Cardinals outfielders that were shuttling between Triple-A and the big leagues that also included Robinson, Randal Grichuk, and Oscar Taveras. With prime prospect Stephen Piscotty also seemingly on the cusp of his major-league debut, it seemed that the Cardinals had a wealth of depth behind their primary four outfielders, Matt Holliday, Jon Jay, Peter Bourjos, and Allen Craig.

Fast forward a year later, however, and things are different. Taveras is unfortunately out of the picture, having passed away last October. Robinson was released by the Cardinals this past offseason and is now a reserve for the Minnesota Twins. Craig was traded last July to the Boston Red Sox, for whom he’s now toiling in Triple-A. Piscotty may still have a big-league future, though he’s now 189 games into his Triple-A career and still has yet to master the level, dealing with some real periods of struggle as he adjusts his swing.

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Grichuk has been a revelation and is performing quite well, hitting for an .830 OPS over 79 plate appearances this season. However, with injury issues affecting the center field position and trade acquisition Jason Heyward struggling in right, Grichuk has now been forced into what basically amounts to an everyday role, eliminating the luxury the Cardinals planned on having of being able to use him off the bench as a righthanded-hitting, powerful pinch hitter.

Meanwhile, after a forgettable 21-game stint with the Orix Buffaloes of the Japanese League in 2014, Butler has been spectacular ever since. He got off to a hot enough start with the Triple-A Durham Bulls that he was able to earn a chance on a Rays team that is largely comprised of dumpster dives and longtime minor-leaguers.

Since joining the Rays on May 3, Butler has been arguably the best player on a Rays team that is rather surprisingly just a half game out of first place in the AL East. Over 92 at-bats, Butler is hitting .337/.371/.543 with four homers, 11 RBI, and three stolen bases. His plate discipline hasn’t been exceptional by any means—he has 28 strikeouts and just two walks—but he’s making a huge impact at the plate and has been able to carve out an 0.9 WAR for himself despite having between 50-100 fewer plate appearances than most of his teammates.

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It’s highly debatable whether Butler will be able to keep up his success; after all, he is an eighth-year pro who had basically been labeled as a “quadruple-A” player after spending five straight years at the Triple-A level. With that said, he’s hit for average and power and gotten on base at a productive rate in every one of those seasons (as well as the combined three seasons he spent advancing through short-season A-ball, High-A, and Double-A). As crazy as it is in a baseball scouting world that is as heavily scrutinized as it is today, it stands to reason that a player like Butler, who was originally taken in the 15th round of the MLB Draft, fell through the cracks and could have been a productive big-leaguer sooner if anyone had given him the chance.

That brings us back to the question of whether the Cardinals should have given Butler a greater chance when he was part of the organization. In fairness to them, it would have been impossible to predict Taveras’s fate at this time last year, and it’s also been surprising that Craig plummeted enough to prompt his trade and that Piscotty has progressed so slowly. With that in mind, the Cardinals probably didn’t see keeping a then-28-year-old career minor-leaguer in the fold, especially when he had the opportunity to get regular at-bats in Japan.

On the other hand, it’s not extremely clear as to why the Cardinals dumped Butler in the way that they did. Prior to his May 9 promotion last season, Butler had done plenty to earn a chance as a role player in the big leagues, as he was hitting .360/.481/.547 with four homers and 20 RBI through his first 86 at-bats for Triple-A Memphis. However, he was almost completely unused over the 10-game stretch that he spent with the big club, getting just six plate appearances, all of which came as a reserve.

He was ultimately swapped for Robinson, a player who was by all accounts a great member of the clubhouse but had repeatedly shown that he didn’t have the offensive ability to make an impact in the majors. Robinson, a generally unproductive player over his previous four big-league seasons, had gone 2-for-20 over an early April stint in the majors, and other than his defensive superiority to Butler there was no discernible reason for his late-May promotion. Robinson’s return to the major-league club would not pay dividends, as he went on to hit .150/.227/.200 for the season with no homers and four RBI.

The most vicious argument that could be created out of the situation is that if the Cardinals had given Butler a real chance to prove himself and he had hit like he’s hitting in Tampa this year, the Cards wouldn’t have had to trade starting pitcher Shelby Miller, currently second in the National League with a 1.89 ERA, for Heyward this offseason. However, that’s a pretty unrealistic thought. Despite the fact that he was benched down the stretch in 2014, the Cardinals spent a pretty large amount of time trying to get Taveras, their longtime top prospect, going as a major-league hitter. That would have left little time for Butler to work his way into the mix, though if he had established himself soon after his promotion, the Cards may have put off promoting Taveras on May 31, as they eventually did. Considering that Grichuk performed pretty well down the stretch in 2014, hitting .318 with two homers over 66 at-bats in August and September, yet was still pushed aside as the club acquired Heyward this offseason, the club may have sought that extra outfield depth from the outside even if Butler had performed well when given an opportunity.

At the very least, though, the Cardinals could have an effective righthanded bench bat for a group that now, on some nights, features backup catcher Tony Cruz (.188/.235/.250), third-stringer Ed Easley (0-for-1 as a big-leaguer), and utility infielder Pete Kozma (.116/.174/.116) as the three available righthanded pinch-hitters. Butler might not be able to break into the Cardinals’ outfield rotation that currently consists of Holliday, Grichuk, Heyward, Bourjos, and Jay, but he’d certainly be an upgrade over a player like Easley that has no other role than as a back-of-the-bench pinch-hitter.

There’s no guarantee that Butler will sustain his pace, so it’s much too early for the Cardinals to have legitimate feelings of regret. Butler would have been buried on the Cardinals’ outfield depth chart, and quite frankly, he’s probably best suited to be a designated hitter, so maybe it’s best that he moved on to Tampa. However, with him hitting as well as he is right now, there has to be just a bit of frustration for a club that is performing extremely well but is lacking a bit in terms of bench depth.

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