I'll admit that the news of Eddie Butler's impending promotion from AA to the big leagues on Friday caught me a little off guard. I couldn't help but be a little excited to hear that a pitcher I've been following ever since draft day through the Rockies system would be making his MLB debut. He's the most heralded prospect to graduate to the big leagues for the Rockies since, arguably, the man he's replacing in the rotation in Franklin Morales.
However, since I'm
an automaton who enjoys the game of baseball by looking only at live FanGraphs updates an introspective fan, I decided to write down some pros and cons of this move for the Rockies this year and in the future.
The need for a better pitcher than Franklin Morales
This has been evident for quite some time now, and I'm glad that the Rockies finally came around. Morales was the 6th best starter coming out of Spring Training - and he was quickly surpassed by Jordan Lyles, moving him down to 7th on the starter pecking order. Still, due to some remarkably-timed injuries to pitchers (watch out Eddie), Morales has thrown the third-most innings for the Rockies this year at 62 2/3.
In those innings, Morales has a dreadful 6.03 ERA and 1.58 WHIP - numbers that are not bad luck, as indicated by his 5.77 Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP, a number that looks only at events under a pitcher's control, like walks, strikeouts, and home runs). He's been "worth" almost a full win below replacement in rWAR and is similarly below replacement level in fWAR. It was clear that a change needed to be made in some capacity to maximize Colorado's chances for a playoff berth this year.
This Pitch (and many more like it)
The 23 year-old Butler has electric stuff, including a mid to high 90s fastball, a devastating slider, and that changeup. Seriously, I've been mesmerized by that pitch for the last ten minutes. All three of those pitches are good enough to generate strikeouts at the big league level, provided that Butler is consistently able to command them.
The righty has reportedly been working on polishing his pitching arsenal at AA this year at the expense of AA results, which is why his strikeout numbers have dropped to 5.2 K/9 this year. Still, Butler has a 2.49 ERA at Tulsa this season with a 1.18 WHIP.
The fact is that, perhaps outside of fellow top prospect Jon Gray, Butler represents the best chance for the Rockies to add an impact pitcher at the major league level this year as they try to make a run for a playoff berth. Calling up Butler at this point is definitely a win now move for the Rockies.
The "use the bullets" in MLB not in the minors argument
Given the rash of injuries that have occurred in recent years with a number of top pitchers and prospects, an argument has recently gained traction that prospects only have so many good pitches in them before an injury is likely to strike. Teams, the theory goes, should therefore call up their top prospects sooner rather than later to take full advantage of the elite velocity (which peaks early on for many pitchers) and crazy good stuff of those prospects before an inevitable injury.
I think that's a bit of a pessimistic worldview, but unfortunately with the spate of pitcher injuries we've seen of late, the Butler call-up has to at least be glanced at through this prism. Butler (knocking on wood furiously) has escaped injury concerns to date, but it's a decent argument to have him provide some MLB value to the Rockies while he's healthy.
The Super Two deadline has likely passed
One of the main reasons that teams delay the arrival of their top prospects these days is because teams receive financial benefits for doing so. If teams delay the arrival of a top prospect for even a couple of weeks into the season (as the Rockies did with Nolan Arenado last year), they are rewarded with an extra year of team control over that player. Waiting two months to call up a player like Eddie Butler means that the Rockies will likely avoid Super Two status with Butler.
In brief, a player's six-plus years of team control break down roughly to three years of league minimum salary, then three years of a salary determined jointly between the team, player, and (if necessary) a salary arbitrator. For a certain % of players with almost three years of service time, an extra year of salary arbitration (at the expense of one of those league minimum salary years) is granted to the player. This is called Super Two status, and by waiting as long as they did the Rockies should avoid that with Eddie Butler even if he spends the rest of the year up with the Rockies.
It's a prudent financial strategy, but one that's frustrating for fans hoping to see top prospects. In Butler's case, there might have also been legitimate baseball reasons for not calling him up sooner, which bring us to...
Is Butler really ready?
It's a valid question, especially given that Butler struggled to get through five innings in his last start, throwing over 100 pitches. That hasn't been a problem historically for Butler, but major league hitters are orders of magnitude more patient and more dangerous than their AA counterparts. There's a reason that the vast majority of players don't contribute to the teams that drafted them immediately, or even within a couple of years of being drafted.
Baseball is an extremely difficult game to master at an elite level, and Butler honestly doesn't have that much experience as a professional - his 286 innings of minor league baseball equate to about a season and a half of a typical major league starting pitcher's workload. The Rockies have kept him on a pitch count and a short leash for most of his professional career to date and it's unclear if he's ready yet for the rigors of pitching at the major league level.
The Rockies have repeatedly said with regards to Butler and Gray that they would only call those players up to the big club when they were ready to assume a rotation slot full time and not let it go. If that is truly the case here, then the Rockies will have a dilemma on their hands very soon when pitchers return from injury.
Is the timing right?
There's a couple of thoughts when considering the ramifications of a Butler call-up at this point:
One is the question of what happens when a pitcher (either Brett Anderson or Tyler Chatwood) comes off of the DL and Butler is pitching well. Do you send down the phenom to AAA or do you make a move with Jordan Lyles or Juan Nicasio (quietly having a pretty good season by the way)?
The other question (related to the first con) is what happens if Butler struggles? What sort of long-term damage might the Rockies be doing with this promotion?
The timing of this move seems odd because those pitchers are probably only a month away, forcing a tough roster move (as the Rockies maybe reluctant to send Butler back down). It might have been a better time for a player like Tyler Matzek, Christian Bergman, or Daniel Winkler.
40 man roster implications
This one isn't a huge deal because the Rockies have a couple of fungible 40 man roster players like Rob Scahill, Kraig Sitton, and Raul Fernandez that they could remove in place of Butler. Still, calling up Matzek (already on the 40 man) would have allowed the Rockies to rock the boat as little as possible with respect to that roster.
It will be very interesting to see how the Rockies treat the 40 man this season, as (presumably) Butler, Gray, and Winkler (maybe in the offseason for him) will all be added to the squad.
The overarching question I've had over the last few months is the question of whether the Rockies would be hurting Butler's development by bringing him up to the big club this early in the year. The stuff is there, the minor league results are there, and the excitement is palpable. I'm just not sure that I agree with the way the Rockies are doing this - unless Butler is able to blow hitters away from day one and establishes himself as a keystone member of the rotation, this move might backfire on Colorado in the long run.
Right now though, I'm excited to see Eddie Butler pitch for the Rockies this Friday night. Hopefully it's the first of many successful starts that Butler will make for Colorado. I can't wait.