The Rays recently lost OF Joey Butler off waivers. Fans often like to focus on the lost player. What they may overlook is the opportunity it creates for younger, talented, and playing time needy players.
Joey Butler was signed by the Rays as a free agent in January of 2015. He had spent some time with the Rangers and Cardinals, managing to get into 14 MLB games by the time the Rays acquired him. Nobody could have predicted the impact he was going to have with the Rays at the time he was acquired. He was thought of as a AAAA player who may never get his chance to become a regular in MLB.
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The Rays wound up giving him the chance he sought. Injuries to various players provided a need for someone like Butler to get the call. He got the call for a game vs the Orioles on May 3rd, managed a hit, and followed that up with one hit in 5 of his first 6 games. That earned him more playing time. He didn’t get a hit in his 7th game, but managed 6 hits over his next 4 games including a HR and a double. Butler was all the rage in Tampa at that point, and finished the month of May hitting .325/.365/.525.
Often, MLB pitchers will tell you that if they are facing an unknown player, it’s hard to come up with a plan to attack his weaknesses. That may have been the case when it comes to Butler. He continued a strong start with a .305/.353/.442 June, but you could already tell scouting reports were focusing more on his attributes and pitchers were adjusting their approach. Their adjustments worked as he hit just .170/.291/.191 in July. Butler made the adjustments after that, bouncing back with a .302/.353/.556 in August.
The last game Butler played with the Rays – so far – was a gem. He hit 2 HR while going 3 for 4, driving in 6 RBI, almost as a wave goodbye to the fans and team who gave him the shot he so coveted while working hard in the minors. But my all-time favourite Butler moment was this one:
We wish Joey Butler well with the Indians and hope that his success in 2015 was not a flash in the pan. We’ll be keeping close tabs on his in 2016 and beyond, as we do with all ex-Rays players.
The Future – Youth
Joey Butler was a great story in 2015, but so was 26-year-old Mikie Mahtook. And unlike Butler, he took a little while to get warmed up after he was called up to the majors. Through June and 10 games of playing time, Mahtook only managed 3 hits. That two of them were HR was interesting, but aside from that his overall performance at the plate was lacking.
Things changed slightly in July and August as he earned limited playing time but managed to make the best of it. Over 4 games between the 2 months he managed 4 hits and 1 HR.
It was in September that Mahtook finally got the playing time he needed to prove himself as a major candidate for a job in 2016. In September and October combined, Mahtook hit .353/.397/.706, which was good for a 1.103 OPS. That adds up to a 193 sOPS+ (average is 100).
Sep 29, 2015; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Rays center fielderMikie Mahtook
(27) gets water poured on him by pitcherChris Archer
(22) as they beat the Miami Marlins at Tropicana Field. Tampa Bay Rays defeated the Miami Marlins 4-2. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Some other interesting stats when it comes to Mahtook is that he performed best at the plate when playing CF, hitting .442/.472/.939 with 5 HR over 33 AB, and that he also performed best when hitting second in the lineup with a .382/.424/.800 line and 6 HR. Both of those aspects of his game are what make him more valuable to the 2016 Rays than Butler would have been. Butler did the most damage hitting 5th in the lineup, even if he spent more time hitting 2nd, and he was restricted to playing LF.
Positional flexibility goes a very long way in today’s game. That Mahtook is able to cover all 3 OF spots effectively is a major edge on most other 4th outfielder candidates. His makeup and work-ethic are as strong as you could imagine, which is also what lets him get the most out of his tools.
Then we have the “next in-line” guys also waiting for a shot to prove themselves in the OF. Taylor Motter, Tyler Goeddel, Johnny Field, and ultimately Garrett Whitley are all pushing up the ranks getting set for a possible shot in The Show. Motter is essentially a Butler type with 5 tools vice 3, and Goeddel will be exposed – and likely selected – in the Rule 5 Draft. That leaves Motter and Field is likely next-in-line behind Mahtook for playing time in Tampa, in order.
The Rays OF will be fine without Butler. There are still moves to be made and things could change from the depth they currently have, but even if the team goes forward with what it has in-house, there’s enough potential there to make for intriguing performances in 2016. Sometimes, as shown in 2015, providing the young guys with an opportunity to display their skills pays off.
Had Joey Butler stuck around, I’m not sure Mahtook and others would have gotten the opportunity they deserve. I wish him all of the best in Cleveland, but I’m more excited about the potential and performance all over the outfield of Mikie Mahtook in 2016 than I would have been watching Butler back up Jennings in LF. I hope you are as well.