A crazy volume of high-profile, transaction activity in recent years has made this winter’s offseason (especially for the Cubs) feel a bit tame by comparison. However, that’s not actually due to a lack of transactions.
Consider that in this offseason alone, we’ve already gotten to know new Cubs relievers Koji Uehara, Wade Davis, Caleb Smith, and Brian Duensing, as well as new Cubs outfielder Jon Jay and (soon to be written up) starter Brett Anderson.
The moves have been made. They’ve just fallen slightly out of sight, thanks to the long shadows cast by the signings of Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist, John Lackey, and Jon Lester, to name a handful.
Today’s focus, new Cubs righty Eddie Butler, may yet slip into the shadows, but on the off-chance that he’s able to rediscover the groove that once made him a top 30 prospect in baseball, we should get to know him sooner rather than later.
The Colorado Rockies selected Butler in the supplemental first round of the 2012 MLB Draft (the year of Addison Russell and Albert Almora), and signed him for a $1 million bonus. After making a brief appearance in rookie ball, his professional career really began with the Rockies Class-A affiliates, the Asheville Tourists, in 2013. After just nine starts there he was promoted to High-A and was eventually selected to appear in the 2013 All-Star Futures Game. By the end of the season, he had even managed to make six starts at Double-A.
He was a heck of a fast riser with good stuff and a mid-90s fastball, and a clear top pitching prospect in the game at that point.
In his second full professional season (2014), the Rockies invited Butler to Spring Training, and he eventually made three starts at the Major League level. However, due to his general ineffectiveness and a sore shoulder, he spent most of 2014 in the Minors. In 2015, he won the fifth starting spot in the Rockies rotation out of Spring Training (after once again dealing with a shoulder issue), but was once again unable to produce at a high enough level to stick with the big league club. It was a tough year for Butler, who tried to take away some lessons and, in the words of his GM, “Eddie’s got to learn to give himself a break” (Denver Post).
Unfortunately, 2016 didn’t look much different, as his nine starts and eight relief appearances with the Rockies resulted in a 7.17 ERA and ugly peripherals. In total, over his 159.1 big league innings so far, Butler sports a 12.7% K rate, a 9.5 % BB rate, and all manner of contact numbers that suggest he has simply been extremely hittable. Moreover, it wasn’t simple a matter of struggling at Coors Field – although Butler was absolutely brutalized at hitter-friendly Coors (.355/.421/.620), he wasn’t much better on the road (.291/.377/.500). Still, the sample is less than a season’s worth of innings, and we’re talking about a young pitcher with limited professional experience. Rough numbers don’t necessarily tell you everything.
In any case, on January 28, 2017, the Rockies designated their former top pitching prospect for assignment, before ultimately trading Butler to the Chicago Cubs for James Farris and some IFA bonus money. (For more on the trade and the relative value of the moving pieces, check out Brett’s original article here.)
Despite the years of struggles, there’s still plenty to like about Butler. First and foremost, he’s just 25-years-old, and under team control through the 2021 season. If he can become *anything* useful, the Cubs will have secured control of his ages 26-30 seasons, which are some of the best a pitcher has to offer. If you’re gonna roll the dice, the upside might as well be significant and long-lasting.
In addition, Butler comes with a highly impressive pedigree.
Check out his various rankings after the 2013 season (rankings via Beyond the Box Score):
- FanGraphs Top 100: #15
- Keith Law Top 100: #17
- Minor League Ball Top 150: #19
- Baseball America Top 100: #24
- Baseball Prospectus Top 101: #26
“With three pitches and the ability to keep the ball down, he’s at least a No. 2 starter, and you couldn’t find a better fit for Coors Field than this kind of power and life.”
Despite easy number 2 starting potential (according to Law), Butler struggled in 2014 and lost some ground in the rankings. Chris Anders has an excellent write-up at Beyond the Box Score describing What exactly went wrong with Eddie Butler.
In that analysis, Anders noted a write-up from BP, with one particular line that stuck out to me:
“Inconsistent timing and release exacerbated inconsistencies tied to crossfire release and regularly birthed choppy secondaries and loosened command.”
Did you catch it? Butler’s crossfire release has led to inconsistent timing and worsened his command? Does that remind you of anyone? It should. Jake Arrieta struggled with something very similar before he came to the Cubs as a former top prospect with lively stuff and extremely inconsistent command.
It’s naive to think that the Cubs pitching coaches have found a one-size-fits-all approach to handling command-struggling, crossfire pitchers (Arrieta is a unique beast), but it is certainly a start. Given his age, pedigree, years of control remaining, and the nature of his particular struggles, I think there’s reason to be cautiously optimistic about what Butler may have to offer.
You can read a lot more about Butler’s story, including his 2016 pitch mix (four-seamer, two-seamer, slider, curveball, changeup), at Beyond the Box Score. You can also read a close-to-home take on what happened from Purple Row, a Rockies blog. Changes of scenery don’t always pan out, obviously, but Butler sure sounds like that kind of guy. It just wasn’t going to happen for him in that organization, as they say.
Suffice it to say, Butler stands a chance at emerging as a starting pitcher for the Cubs down the line, and if that fails, he may be well-suited for a full-time transition to the bullpen. In the meantime, he’ll likely head to Triple-A Iowa, to serve as extreme depth for the Cubs staff at the Major League level, while he works on a bounce back.
Brett Taylor contributed to this post.