Eddie Butler was once seen as a key asset to the Colorado Rockies’ future. Drafted by the Rockies 46th overall in the 2012 June Amateur Draft, the unassuming righty impressed in his early minor league days, breezing through two levels of A-ball and finishing the 2013 season with six starts for the Double-A Tulsa Drillers.
Butler made 28 total starts in 2013, posting a 9-5 record with a stunning 1.80 ERA and 0.99 WHIP in 149 and ⅔ innings. This performance opened some eyes, and before the 2014 season, Baseball Prospectus ranked him the #26 prospect in all of baseball.
Things didn’t work out the way anyone expected or hoped: since his major league debut in 2014, Eddie Butler has gone 6-16 with a 6.50 ERA and a staggering 1.77 WHIP. His 1.34 strikeout to walk rate in that time is a far cry from the 2.75 he posted in that stellar 2013 campaign, too.
For the Rockies, they’d seen enough, and designated the now-25-year-old right-hander for assignment. The Chicago Cubs—ever in search of young, controllable pitching—unsurprisingly decided to take a chance on the second act of Eddie Butler’s career.
Reclamation projects have been a forte for Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer’s Cubs since the moment they took over, guided by the influence of pitching coach Chris Bosio. In the trying Dale Sveum era of Cubs baseball, Paul Maholm and Scott Feldman flashed moments of brilliance, which ultimately gave the front office extra chips to trade for more prospects by the deadline.
Feldman, of course, led to 27-year-old Jake Arrieta, a “failed” project with the Baltimore Orioles who eventually became the poster child of “Bosmosis.” Arrieta and Butler share similar minor league experiences; in 2010, Baseball Prospectus ranked Arrieta #70 among prospects, and he delivered on these expectations going 6-2 with a 1.85 ERA, earning his big league promotion.
The jury’s still out on whether or not Butler can replicate some of Arrieta’s success, but there are a few areas of his game where the Cubs could be of immediate assistance.
In 2016, Butler pitched a total of 64 innings for the Rockies (17 appearances, nine starts), and save for a six-inning, four-hit shutout performance on May 8 against the San Francisco Giants, there isn’t much “good” to be found. One number that stood out was his BABIP: .354.
It may not be a coincidence that the Rockies weren’t a very good defensive team in 2016; their 0.683 defensive efficiency rating was third-worst among all 30 teams, and their park-adjusted defensive efficiency was dead last at -4.04. While Butler’s 7.17 ERA in 2016 was the highest in his young career, his DRA went from 6.20 to 5.45, and his cFIP improved from 121 to 110.
Colorado’s defensive limitations can be pretty jarring, and the Cubs—who led the majors with a 0.745 DE and astounding 6.38 PADE—look to be of much greater assistance for Butler.
What this wouldn’t help Butler with is his penchant for surrendering the long ball. Butler’s HR/9 was a disastrous 1.83 in 2016 (1.58 in 159 ⅓ big league innings).
Nobody wants to fall back on the generally lazy “but Coors!” defense, but that may have played a role in Butler’s astronomical home run rate: Coors Field saw the fourth-most home runs of any ballpark in 2016 (202). Butler has thrown 30 more innings on the road than at Coors Field but gave up the same amount of bombs in each scenario, so his home run rate is much higher at Coors.
In general, Butler has pitched far better away from Coors in his short career. In 90 road innings, he has a lifetime 5.40 ERA and 1.622 WHIP. In 69 ⅓ innings in Denver, those numbers skyrocket to 7.92 and 1.962. Like I said, you hate to resort to common arguments, but in the case of Eddie Butler the “Coors effect” seems to have been a legitimate problem.
Wrigley Field could do him a few favors. The Friendly Confines weren’t the launching pad they were once known to be, tying with Citizens Bank Park for 11th among all major league parks for home runs (171) in 2016. This, along with the Cubs’ defense, could play a substantial role in “fixing” Eddie Butler.
But the intangible wild card in all of this will be the influence of Chris Bosio on Butler’s work. Eddie Butler comes to the Cubs with five pitches in his arsenal: two- and four-seam fastballs—with the latter averaging out at 93 mph—slider, curveball and changeup. Bosio can (and will) undoubtedly look into all of these to find what works and what doesn’t.
The “Bosmosis” is an intangible because on the human level, people accept new philosophies differently. For all we know, Bosio’s “fixes” don’t translate or aren’t effective with Butler, and this all becomes moot. But given the circumstances, a club-controlled 25-year-old starter with five pitches once ranked by many as a top 20 prospect offers is worth that risk for the Cubs.
The only other question that comes to mind is, in what capacity does he pitch? The Cubs have Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Jake Arrieta, and John Lackey returning for 2017, and they recently signed Brett Anderson to a one-year deal. Butler looks like he could realistically fall into a “utility swingman” role, as Adam Warren and Trevor Cahill did. If that’s the case, he’ll likely find a regular home in the bullpen.
With that said, Joe Maddon and Bosio have often discussed a long-term six-man rotation, and one has to wonder if 2017 is the year they play around with this. If they do, Butler joins Mike Montgomery as candidates for that spot, assuming no more moves are made by the front office.
No matter how he’s used in 2017, if his numbers improve and he pitches half as well as fans expected four years ago, Butler provides a possible long-term answer to the Cubs’ post-2017 starting rotation question mark. He isn’t eligible for free agency until 2022, so even if he’s mediocre, he gives the Cubs long-term pitching depth in both the rotation and the bullpen.
For now, there’s no guarantee Butler can channel the excellence he displayed with Tulsa in 2013, nor is there a guarantee the Cubs will even have space for him on the Opening Day roster. But there’s significant potential here for both Butler and the Cubs, and it was a deal worth making.
With spring training just weeks away, we’ll start getting our answers soon enough.
Lead photo courtesy Ron Chenoy—USA Today Sports