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CLEVELAND -- It's the end of August, and the Royals are out of contention in the American League Central.
Billy Butler, a key cog -- if not the
key cog -- in the Kansas City lineup since his 2007 debut, is used to this by now. But that doesn't mean he's by any means complacent.
"You don't want your whole career to not matter," Butler said. "You want meaningful games late in the season."
You probably haven't noticed that Butler has been among the more productive players in the Majors in the second half, because, well, why would you? The Royals really haven't made much national noise this season, aside from a hot start in April, the debuts of Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas and the signing of Bubba Starling.
"Kansas City is always looking for the next big prospect to come up," Butler said. "It was the same way for me when I came up. When you're not winning, your fans are just looking for the next thing to hear about. It will be that way until you have a winning year and you have things here."
Butler and the rest inside the Royals' universe believe that time is coming. Alex Gordon is finally living up to his No. 1-pick potential, posting a .301 average and .871 OPS through Sunday. The 21-year-old Hosmer (.273, .750) is holding his own in his first exposure to this level. The 22-year-old Moustakas (19-for-his-last-39) appears to have discovered his swing and his confidence after a brutally slow start. Even Jeff Francoeur, newly signed to a two-year extension and carrying an adjusted OPS of 120, has performed at a level above his career norm (95 OPS+).
Still, the Royals generally find themselves dwelling in the land of projections, not promises. The 25-year-old Butler has often been an example of this, as his power numbers have not always befitted his position at first base and then designated hitter.
Much to the Royals' liking, however, Butler appears to be building upon that power potential in recent months.
"Billy's as good a right-handed hitter as I've seen in my years in the big leagues," manager Ned Yost said. "He's a guy who should hit 20-30 homers and drive in 120 runs. He's got that type of ability. The thing with him is he's got power to all fields. He has as good a two-strike approach as any hitter I've seen. He's done a good job lately of just letting it fly."
Butler was among the league leaders in doubles in 2009 (51) and 2010 (45), and he is at an age when more of those doubles should start turning into home runs. So it's worth noting that he's gone deep 10 times since the All-Star break (one on a disputable call against the Yankees) after hitting six in the first half. He's also hit 14 doubles since the break.
"What I like is he's trying to hit for more power," Francoeur said. "I said something a while back, and it probably upset him, but I'd rather see him go 1-for-4 with a homer than 2-for-4 with two singles to right field. And I'm not saying there's anything bad about that, but there are certain times where, when he gets a 2-0 count, he needs to come out of his shoes and let it go. He's got power, he's got great bad speed, and I think he's starting to realize how much it helps our team when he's driving the ball and doing that."
But Butler has to learn to flash that pop without becoming a free swinger. Last season, he posted the best strikeout-to-walk ratio (1.13) of his career. This year, the ratio has been headed in the wrong direction, particularly in the second half. Butler had 37 strikeouts against 46 walks from April through June. But in July and August, the ratio is an alarming 41:11.
"I have struck out more as of late, but I've also driven some balls, too," he said. "That kind of goes hand-in-hand. It all goes in cycles. But most of all, I'm happy with the production."
The power Butler can provide is increasingly rare at a time when pitching prowess is dominating baseball, so his evolution, which will have as much as anything to do with the Royals' ability to contend in the future, is intriguing to track.
That said, Butler is a young man in a position oft-reserved for dinosaurs in today's game. Ten guys have enough at-bats as a DH to qualify for the batting title this season. Only two -- Butler and Toronto's Edwin Encarnacion -- are under the age of 30.
Butler has made it clear he'd prefer to be at first base, but that's Hosmer's domain now. So whether or not he loves his role, Butler is going to have to make the most of it.
"People don't give [DH] enough credit," Butler said. "It's one of the tougher jobs in sports, because in [most] any other sport, you're getting in on both sides of things. The ability to stay loose, stay stretched out, stay mentally focused, it's tougher than a lot of people give it credit for. You can beat yourself up, but you just have to find a happy place, stay there and not put too much into one at-bat. It's a mentally challenging position."
This time of year is always challenging for the Royals. The games have no standings significance, and the future they envision is always on the horizon, not in hand. Perhaps that's changing, as Hosmer gets comfortable and Moustakas matures and Butler evolves.
But until the wins come, Butler and Co. will have to endure more of the same.
"We've never had any different mentality," Butler said. "We just have different players in here. We have the right mix of guys to where we're going out there and you can see that we have more talent than we've ever had. We have the ability, if we put our mind to it and don't let other things affect us, we can go out there and win with the best of them. Obviously we have a lot of rookies and have to go through some growing pains, but I think we're going to surprise."