Butler on the Bubble for an Indians Bench Role

After a strong 2015 season at both the Major League and Triple-A levels for the Tampa Bay Rays, Joey Butler is an intriguing option for a bench role with the Cleveland Indians or even as a temporary fill-in in the outfield to start the season with the injury to Michael Brantley.

Butler earned his first regular work in the Majors last season after two quick cups of coffee in other spots around the league.

He began last season with the Rays’ Durham Bulls Triple-A affiliate and had a torrid start, getting hits in each of his first six games and eleven of his first 12. In just three of his 20 games for the month he was held hitless and he ended the month with a .320 average, a pair of homers, and 15 runs batted in.

The Rays added him to their 25-man roster on May 3rd and he immediately jumped into regular duty in the lineup. He had hits in nine of his first eleven games to start the Major League portion of his season, including his first Major League homer on May 4th. He ended the month with a .329 average, hitting six doubles and three homers while driving in eight.

June was more of the same, as a seven-game hitting streak was followed by a six-gamer and he finished the month with four doubles, three homers, a dozen runs knocked in, and a strong .305 average. The impressive start for the third-year man was cooled in the July heat, as he slumped to a .170 average in 20 games, with just eight hits (one double) in that span, but his first hit of the month affected the Indians as it ended Carlos Carrasco’s no-hit and shutout bid on July 1st in the bottom of the ninth with two outs and two strikes against him. Compounding the poor July plate numbers for Butler were 19 strikeouts in 55 plate appearances.

By mid-August and still scuffling, the club optioned him back to Durham to make room on the roster with the activation of Desmond Jennings from the disabled list. Back with the Bulls, he crushed a .368/.442/.763 slash in nine games, hitting three doubles, four homers, and nine RBI before returning Tampa on August 27th. When the rosters expanded for September, he was reduced to a pinch-hitting role, getting no more than two at bats in eight games played with just one single and six strikeouts in his nine plate appearances. He did end the season with a bang, getting a pair of starts in the club’s final series of the season against Toronto, going 4-for-8 in the two games. His last game as a Ray may have been the most impressive of his season – he went 3-for-4 with a single, two homers, and six RBI, including a first inning grand slam off of Mark Buehrle and a two-run shot in the fifth off of Drew Hutchison.

The right-handed Butler ended the season with a .276 average and a .326 on-base percentage with the Rays, hitting a dozen doubles and eight homers while driving in 30. He struck out 82 times in 88 games. He did not discriminate with his home runs, splitting them an even four and four against lefties and righties, but defied traditional splits with a .289 average against right-handed pitchers and .259 against left-handed ones.

Butler was a roster casualty and was designated for assignment on December 3rd when the club acquired catcher Hank Conger. The Rays were hoping he would pass through the waiver process unclaimed so that they could re-sign him to a minor league deal.

“He did a great job for us last year,” Rays president of baseball operations Matt Silverman was quoted on TampaBay.com following Butler’s placement on waivers. “He was an offensive force for us for a good part of the year and a great teammate throughout. He’s someone we’d love to keep in our organization…But hopefully he stays in our organization and can be a part of it for a while.”

The Indians ruined their plans, claiming him off of waivers.

“He’s a right-handed hitter who plays left and right field and can DH,” said new Indians general manager Mike Chernoff following the move from the Winter Meetings in Nashville. “Recently, he’s hit (against) left and right-handed pitching. Early on he faced mostly lefties, but last year he had pretty good splits.”

Butler, a Mississippi native, attended the University of New Orleans and was a 15th round selection by the Texas Rangers in the 2008 draft. He debuted with the club in August of 2013, playing in eight games, and was selected off of waivers by the St. Louis Cardinals following the season. He played in just six games for the Cardinals in 2014, going hitless in six trips to the plate after hitting .360 in 31 games for their Triple-A Memphis affiliate. He was released by St. Louis in May and signed with the Orix Buffaloes of the Japan Pacific League, hitting .231 in 21 games there. He signed with the Rays at the beginning of the 2015 year.

Butler spent more than half of his games with the Rays as the designated hitter in the lineup, but he did make 24 starts in the outfield. Twenty-two of those came in left, which just so happens to be an area of concern for the Tribe in the short-term. He has made just one error in 40 career games in the outfield and owns a .984 fielding percentage for his short career.

Turning 30 in the second week of March, Butler needs to prove that he is not a “AAAA” player in the professional game. He has hit .295 in eight minor league seasons, including a .306 mark in five separate trips to the Triple-A level with 54 career home runs. He hit as many as 20 in a season in 2012. But only the Rays have given him consistent playing time despite good numbers in the minors and, for the majority of his season with the club, he performed at a high level.

Butler would provide the Indians with corner outfield depth and a needed right-handed bat off of the bench, something the club appears to be lacking heading in to the season. The outfield mix is a crowded battle, with Rajai Davis, Abraham Almonte, and Lonnie Chisenhall presumed to be holding spots for the season. It is unclear if the Indians will head north with a 12- or 13-man pitching staff, which means there may just be one spot available to start the season with Roberto Perez and Jose Ramirez expected to have roles on manager Terry Francona’s bench.

There is some belief that right-handed hitting Collin Cowgill could have the leg up on the spot, as he may provide more of a defensive benefit to the roster with his skill set and versatility, but Butler’s bat appears to be far superior to his camp competitor. With a strong starting pitching staff heading into the season and a season-high four off days scheduled for April, Francona could elect to go with a smaller relief staff, which would allow him to bring an additional position player. The right-handed bench options from last season – Chris Johnson, Ryan Raburn, and Jerry Sands – are no longer with the club and it looks to be an area of concern looking forward to the season.

With that in mind, the potential of Butler’s bat may be enough of a reason to give him regular opportunities in left field to start the year and, once Brantley has recovered and rejoined the lineup, make a determination to option one of the additional outfielders or make a different move altogether.

Photo: AP Photo/Tony Dejak

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