Commentary

30 Questions: How much will Billy Butler improve?

Updated: March 17, 2009, 3:53 PM ET
By Jason Grey | ESPN.com

Thirty teams, 30 burning fantasy questions. Throughout the preseason, we put one of these questions to an ESPN.com analyst for an in-depth look at the most interesting, perplexing or dumbfounding fantasy facet of each major league team.

Can Billy Butler take the next step?

When Billy Butler was playing in the Arizona Fall League a few seasons ago, a bunch of scouts were sitting in their usual spots behind home plate watching him attempt to play left field. It wasn't going well.

The talk then turned to where Butler could play at the next level. Third base? Left field? First base?

Finally, one scout had the answer. He knew where Butler's best position was.

"The batter's box."

Billy Butler
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezQuiet 2008 stats and the fact that he's playing for the Royals may make Billy Butler a great sleeper pick in 2009.
Fortunately, fantasy owners don't have to worry so much about Butler's defense. He's slated to be the Royals' DH this season while having first-base eligibility.

Last year, Butler spent a month at Triple-A after hitting just .266 with one home run during the first two months of the season. But it's a new year, and it's a safe bet Butler won't be playing in Omaha again any time soon.

We have to remember that Butler will turn just 23 shortly after Opening Day yet already has hit .282 in 772 big league at-bats with just 112 strikeouts. His pop will come. After the demotion, Butler came back to hit .284 and slug .444 the rest of the way, including .305 with nine homers and a .476 slugging percentage after the All-Star break.

Butler has a .977 on-base plus slugging percentage in more than 1,500 minor league at-bats, with more than half of those coming at the Double-A level or above. Also helping his case is that scouts love his swing.

Butler already makes a lot of contact thanks to his plus bat speed and balance at the plate. At 6-foot-1 and 240 pounds, he has a lot of raw strength. He doesn't try to do too much with pitches on the outer half of the plate, and he's willing to hit the ball where it's pitched and work to all fields. Butler has all the skills to be an impact hitter in the big leagues.

The right-handed hitter already mashes left-handed pitching, with a .340 batting average and .585 slugging percentage against southpaws in his short big league career. He has struggled against major league righties, hitting just .256 with a .345 slugging percentage. But he showed he could handle right-handers in the minors, and it's reasonable to expect he will make some strides against them this season.

The one thing helping to depress his power numbers is his tendency to put the ball on the ground a bit too often for someone with his raw pop. His 49 percent ground-ball rate was among the higher marks in baseball last season, and that will need to change if he's to start doing some real damage in the power categories.

Sign up today for the most customizable free fantasy baseball game out there. You set the rules, scoring, everything. Sign up today!
At times, it appears Butler is swinging defensively instead of being aggressive and looking to drive the ball, but that's something that can improve as he gets more and more settled in against big league pitching, especially right-handers.

Provided Butler improves a little against righties and hits a few less grounders, his numbers will rise. They already started to do so in the latter half of the 2008 season.

It may not be terribly meaningful, but Butler legitimately lost 15 pounds this offseason, showing up to camp in great shape after hiring a personal trainer for the first time. He got off to a slow start this spring when he suffered a deep bone bruise after a pitch hit his hand in the first week of games. But he has bounced back to hit .310 with two homers thus far and looks on track to start the season well.

A slightly optimistic prediction at this stage of Butler's development would be that he could hit .300 with 18-20 homers this season, but it's entirely possible. The bottom line is Butler could be among the top 20 fantasy players at first base this season, but he is owned in less than 30 percent of ESPN.com leagues. He's a potential value buy because he will take another step up in 2009.

Jason Grey is a graduate of the MLB Scouting Bureau's Scout Development Program and has won two Tout Wars titles, one LABR title and numerous other national "experts" competitions.