- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
The major league leader in doubles the past two seasons is Kansas City Royals first baseman/designated hitter Billy Butler, and you know what they say about doubles in the fantasy baseball/statistical community: As a player matures, those doubles start to travel further and become home runs. Fantasy owners like the home runs. That's a fantasy statistic. A year ago, the common argument on evaluating Butler was that breakout 2009 season, with 51 doubles, plus 21 home runs and 93 RBIs, was just the tip of the iceberg.
Well, perhaps strides can still be made, but Butler did not improve on those power numbers in 2010. The home runs dropped to 15, which is frankly just not good enough when it comes to a first baseman. Through the first five months, Butler hit only 11 home runs, which is why many of you probably gave up on him. I mean, nobody seems to want to own James Loney, as he's being selected in the 22nd round, 23rd among first basemen. Loney's no Jose Bautista, and he hit fewer home runs than Butler, but he knocked in more runs. Butler is being selected 13th among first basemen, as if last season's power dip never happened. Butler didn't hit fewer home runs because, like Nelson Cruz, he had multiple disabled list stints. In fact, Butler played in 158 games, ranking 20th in plate appearances. He was out there, and while we appreciate the .318 batting average, we need more power.
I won't make the case I'd rather draft Loney than Butler. I'm skeptical Loney will ever reach 20 home runs in a season. Recently he told reporters he refined his swing this winter to get more lift on the ball, in an effort to produce the almighty long ball. Perhaps he feels his 41 doubles last season, and career .288 batting average, isn't enough. In fantasy baseball, they aren't, unless it's a late pick.
So why does Butler get a pass? I argued for resurrected Chicago White Sox first sacker Paul Konerko over Butler in an ESPN Fantasy Diamond Debate coming to your computer soon, and I meant it. Even assuming Konerko, turning 35 years old this weekend, regresses back to 30 home runs and 100 RBIs, Butler has never approached this. His best season featured 21 home runs. Yes, he's been a big leaguer for only four seasons, but his career slugging percentage -- which takes into account doubles, singles, all hits -- is .457. Loney's is .436. Butler hasn't hit 25 years old yet, but for years the galaxy ripped Minnesota Twins outfielder Delmon Young for falling short in the power categories. Then last season, he emerged. We're waiting for Butler to have, believe it or not, his Delmon Young season.
I don't really expect it will happen this year. In fact, I think this is a critical season for Butler, because Kila Ka'aihue seems ready for regular duty -- he and Butler figure to share first base and designated hitter -- but on the horizon is a player most think will not struggle to hit for power nor average in Eric Hosmer. I recently traded for Hosmer in a dynasty league, and while the track record for young, hyped first basemen of late hasn't been 100 percent positive -- see Justin Smoak, Matt LaPorta, Brett Wallace, Chris Davis -- I think we'll see Hosmer by September and he won't look back. Butler needs to do more than hit doubles or in a year or two he might be regarded much like Loney. Today that thought seems incomprehensible. It's not like Butler brings value with his legs or the glove. Plus, he led the majors, by a lot, by hitting into 32 double plays.
Some will say I'm giving up on Butler too soon. That's not really the case. In fact, the only first baseman from our live draft results I would vault over him at this point is Konerko. Surely I have doubts Aubrey Huff can repeat, Carlos Pena can hit his weight, that Derrek Lee has much left and that we'll see enough improvement in Gaby Sanchez and Mitch Moreland. I think what I'm saying is, there's a tier after the top 11 or 12 first basemen, and then I don't feel great about anyone.
Butler ranked 10th on the Player Rater at his position last year, but most of that was batting average driven, which can fluctuate. He does seem a lock for a high batting average, but don't you need more from your first baseman, a potential starter in 12-team leagues? If the Royals can get people on base for him, he should improve on his 78 RBIs. Man, 78 RBIs for a No. 3/4 hitter, that's tough to do. There were 62 players with more RBIs, including Jhonny Peralta, Rickie Weeks and Juan Uribe. Another Uribe-like year from Butler in the power stats and we'll all be pining for Adam LaRoche come 2012.
A few housekeeping notes:
• I'll be hosting a live ESPN chat Wednesday at 3 p.m. ET (and every Wednesday at that time!). Bring your questions about any topics, and we'll obviously be discussing what's been happening in the spring games, some notable injuries (Chris Carpenter, Chase Utley) and a lot more.
• Today began the new era of the Baseball Today podcast I've been hosting for a few years, as my new co-hosts Keith Law and Mark Simon were introduced. I'm sure you know these guys already, and we discuss everything from prospects to stats to just plain awesome baseball. And hey, don't forget to listen to Fantasy Focus as well!
• I will be appearing at an ESPN The Weekend event on Saturday from 11:30 a.m. ET until the start of the Atlanta Braves-New York Mets game, talking baseball and answering questions about whatever is on your mind. Stop on by and say hello.
• Finally, I swear I will start tweeting more. Catch me at @karabellespn. Adios.
Eric Karabell discusses the case of Billy Butler, who has yet to show enough home run power to be considered a top first baseman in fantasy.