Early February is a dead zone as far as Major League Baseball goes. There may be some activity in free agency or the occasional trade, but for the most part that time of year is when baseball is at its lowest point. Spring training is right around the corner, and MLB fans the world over are in a constant state of “Please come back baseball, please come back…” It’s not surprising then that a trade for a seemingly failed prospect didn’t generate much buzz amongst Chicago Cubs fans when it happened.
The man the Cubs traded for in early February of 2017 was Eddie Butler. To most, Butler was nothing more than another depth piece. An option to sit in the minors in case injuries happened and the Cubs needed some help with the major league rotation. That’s why there was no fanfare around him, and also why that fanfare didn’t appear even as Butler impressed in spring training. Then Butler was sent to start the season with the Triple-A Iowa Cubs, and everything the fans thought seemed to be true.
But I think Butler has been underestimated. Allow yourself to take a closer look at what Eddie Butler could be because the Cubs didn’t get Butler just to be a depth piece. Rather, they traded for Butler because they thought in a new setting with a fresh start and the Cubs coaching staff behind him that Butler could be something special. It’s not like the front office was taking a flier on Butler. He has a pedigree, so there are reasons why he is a desirable commodity for a team like the Cubs.
Looking at Butler’s numbers with the Colorado Rockies would seem to belie such an assertion. In 2016, Butler sported an ERA of 7.17. Even his DRA of 6.56 isn’t exactly instilling much confidence in the Cubs move. In fact, at every level following his MLB debut with the Rockies in 2014, Butler produced stats that were not pleasing to the eye. The main problem with Butler appeared to be the amount of contact he was giving up. In 2016, Butler had a H/9 of 12.2. That’s just ungainly, the sort of stat that screams at me to run away, run away as fast as I can from this guy.
Why then did the Cubs decide that Butler and his unseemly statistics were worth going after? Because of his stuff—stuff that they believe they can harness. The same stuff that made Butler a first round pick. The same stuff that at one time had Butler being positioned as the savior of the Rockies pitching staff. When he’s on, Butler throws a very heavy fourseam fastball. He’s capable of generating lots of grounders. Early in his minor league career he had a groundball percentage routinely around the 50-60 mark. Even as he lost his ability to generate outs, his ground ball rate stayed around 50 percent. That is what the Cubs front office saw; that is the stuff that they believed they could take and make even better.
In spring training, and now with Iowa, Butler has relied heavily on the aforementioned fastball. His numbers in Iowa range from respectable to outright nasty. Through three starts he has an ERA of 1.45, opposing hitters are only batting .206 against him, and his GO/AO rate has dropped all the way down to 1.10. The main difference that I have noticed in watching Butler in Iowa, and even in the spring, is that he looks confident again. The results are coming along because he is throwing his pitches with purpose. There were times in 2016 when he very much looked like a pitcher chucking the ball and hoping for the best. That’s no longer the case, and the change of scenery seems to have helped Butler’s numbers as well as his approach.
There is still a lot for Butler to prove, however. One quality spring training and a good three game to start to a Pacific Coast League season do not mean that he has completely turned things around. But, just like when he first started his pro career, there is plenty of promise in what Butler is doing for the Cubs. He’s relying on his fastball, mixing in a hard biting slider, and occasionally confounding the batter with a sweeping curveball. There’s that stuff peeking through the shadows, the stuff that Butler again has confidence in. By bringing him over when they did, the Cubs are giving Butler the chance to prove himself, to work back to what he once thought he could be. Butler does provide depth, but he also provides a possible safety net for what is to come.
It’s no secret that the Cubs have some issues facing them in their starting rotation. Jake Arietta is almost certainly gone via free agency after this year. John Lackey will either retire or not be brought back. They can’t count on Brett Anderson for more than he is able to give them this year, if that. There’s a good chance that next year the only members of the current rotation still around will be Kyle Hendricks and an even older Jon Lester. That’s why Eddie Butler was brought into the fold. If he can continue the groove that he found in spring training and has carried over into the regular season with Iowa, then the Cubs may have found themselves yet another diamond in the rough.
Lead photo courtesy Matt Kartozian—USA Today Sports