As we think about the Cubs’ holes at the back of the rotation, and the offseason that lays ahead of them, it’s worth pointing out whatever starting depth they already have in-house.
Luke discussed Alec Mills, whose mostly lost 2017 season took him off many of our radars. But what about the other young, depth-plus-upside starter the Cubs acquired last offseason in trade? You know, the one who actually made 11 starts for the Cubs last year?
Because he was not brought back to the big league team at the end of the season, I think Eddie Butler, like Mills, fell off a lot of folks’ radars. Well, it wasn’t solely because he didn’t come back – it was also because, in his time with the Cubs, he really struggled.
Although Butler flashed absolutely electric stuff in his debut against the Cardinals, he was rather hittable thereafter, with command problems aplenty. It was easy to see why scouts dreamed on the fastball for a long time, as well as the wide arsenal, but too often Butler simply could not execute his pitches. I’m not sure I can remember a guy in the last few years who *looked* so good out there, but who also just kept giving up hit after hit and walk after walk.
Although Butler’s ERA is lower than his time with the Rockies, that’s come almost exclusively because of an unusually low HR/FB ratio (7.1% – which is half the league average, and probably not entirely skill-based), and an incredibly low BABIP (.265). Some of that latter figure is due to the fact that Butler’s soft contact rate is way up with the Cubs and his hard contact rate is way down, but each of those rates are actually only about league average.
Butler’s groundball rate is actually down with the Cubs, at a below-league-average 42.9%. Moreover, his swinging strike rate is only up 0.1% over last year. And at 7.7%, it’s far below league average (10.4%).
Butler’s walk rate is a scary 12.7%, and his strikeout rate is an equally scary 15.1%. He doesn’t have to be a big strikeout guy to have success, but if he’s going to live with that strikeout rate, he’s going to need to induce a lot more grounders, and walk a lot fewer batters ….
Were I evaluating Butler on another team – based solely on the stats and peripherals – I’d have to say I don’t see much reason for optimism. Were I evaluating with him based on what I’ve seen with my eyes, however, it’s not hard to see why he was a top-rated prospect on whom the Rockies dreamed for several years. He has a wide array of pitches that he can sometimes command. He gets great movement on his fastballs, and he has solid velocity. The bones are all there for a great starting pitcher.
But the inability to consistently locate his pitches is just a killer for him, costing him strikes, costing him the right kind of contact, extending his innings, and imperiling the results. Hopefully the Cubs are successfully identifying strategies Butler can use to improve command and refine his arsenal while he’s pitching with the big league team.
The numbers actually improved on the results side of the ledger from then on, but the peripherals got even worse. The 3.95 ERA he put up with the Cubs in 2017 would have been a lot more exciting if he hadn’t looked so bad for so many starts after that first one, and if he didn’t have a 12.7% strikeout rate (yikes) and an 11.8% walk rate (YIKES).
Butler was in the strike zone just 44.3% of the time, which would be a bottom 20 mark in baseball if he’d had the innings to qualify. Worse, when he was in the zone, it’s not like he was missing bats – his zone contact rate of 91.2% would have been the third highest in baseball. (One spot ahead of Alex Cobb …. )
If you were looking for a silver lining, you’d note that Butler’s soft contact rate (20.3%) was solidly above league average (18.9%), and his hard contact rate (31.6%) was just about league average (31.8%). It didn’t feel that way watching him, but at least he had a little something going on the batted ball side of things.
On the whole, if that’s who Butler is – a guy who can sometimes get some soft contact, but who is not going to strike anyone out and who is going to give up a ton of walks – then he is, at best, an adequate 6th/7th/8th starter. And the Cubs will need guys like that to take innings, so … cool. Fine.
But there’s a problem. A big one. To be a 6th/7th/8th starter, you’ve gotta have minor league options left, and Butler doesn’t have any. So unless the Cubs are going to convert him into a reliever, he’s either gotta make the rotation out of Spring Training, or be subjected to waivers before the Cubs could outright him to Iowa. Maybe he would clear waivers, but given the talent you can see when watching him, it wouldn’t at all be surprising to see some rebuilding club take a chance.
For now, the Cubs don’t have to do anything – they can carry Butler on the 40-man roster for the winter, see how he looks in Spring Training, and then proceed with the tough roster decisions from there.
Assuming he’s healthy, that is.
When Butler was sent to Iowa at the end of July, the expectation was that he would return when rosters expanded in September, perhaps pitching out of the bullpen. But, back at Iowa, left his final start at Iowa on August 6th in the middle of the 5th inning, went on the disabled list the next day, and did not pitch again. Minor league injury information is very tough to come by, so I can’t say for certain what the issue was, and I don’t want to erroneously peg it as one thing or the other.
Let’s assume, though, absent surgery, Butler will be healthy enough to pitch in the Spring. Even in that case, the Cubs will still have to operate this offseason with an urgency to add additional depth starters, particularly those who can be optioned freely to AAA, just in case Butler is ultimately lost on waivers.
It’s nice to continue dreaming on Butler’s upside, and I do hope the Cubs will figure out a way to keep him. But he may have gotten the best shot he’s going to get to establish himself with the Cubs last year, and now the options issue will make it a whole lot harder for the Cubs to keep him as depth.