The best time to play the lottery is when you either have nothing to lose, or when the odds are stacked in your favor. In the case of acquiring starting pitcher and former top prospect Eddie Butler for James Farris, the Cubs may have both going for them, and the upside is profiting in the same way they did when acquiring Kyle Hendricks and Jake Arrieta.
Butler was designated for assignment this past Saturday by the Colorado Rockies to make room on the roster for newly signed RP Greg Holland, meaning the Rockies had 10 days to trade him, waive him, or remove him from their 40-man roster. By Wednesday, he was a member of the Cubs.
The downside of the deal appears to be minimal on the surface, as I had to reacquaint myself with James Farris, a 24-year-old relief pitcher who was not a top-30 prospect in the Cubs system heading into last year. Farris does have some good looking numbers though, and could have a good shot at being an effective reliever in the majors. Here’s a quick scouting report from Chicago Cubs Online:
Splitting time between Double-A Tennessee and High-A Myrtle Beach, the 24-year old Farris was a combined 2-5 with 13 saves, a 2.59 ERA, 0.985 WHIP and 74 strikeouts in 66 innings. Farris’ scouting reports says that he has a low-90s fastball with movement and deception that he can add or subtract to, along with a curve and his best pitch, a changeup.
While Farris is not an insignificant loss, the potential upside of Butler is worth the risk. When I say the odds are in the Cubs favor, history is my witness. Most recently with Mike Montgomery, most famously with Jake Arrieta, and perhaps most effectively with Kyle Hendricks, the Cubs have shown a proven ability to maximize every drop of potential out of talented young arms.
Potential is the only thing Eddie Butler has going for him, however, as his MLB results have never lived up to his initial prospect hype. Butler was selected with the 46th pick of the 2012 draft by the Rockies and was given a $1 million signing bonus. Heading into the 2013, Baseball America called Butler’s stuff “electric,” saying:
He touched 99 in the instructional league with his fastball after hitting 97 several times during the season. He usually pitches at 94-96 mph with his fastball, and its sinking action makes it even more effective. Butler throws two breaking balls, a solid slider and an average curveball.
At that time BA ranked Butler as the Rockies 6th best prospect after leading the Pioneer Rookie League in ERA (2.13), WHIP (1.06) and opponent’s batting average (.230). A year later, after putting up a 1.66 ERA in 54 innings pitched at Low-A he followed that up with a 2.39 ERA in 68 innings pitched after a promotion to Hi-A, and hold on we’re not done, because Butler was promoted again that year to Double-A and all he did was put up a 0.65 ERA in 28 innings pitched to close out the season.
After that incredible 2013 performance, Butler found himself ranked as the 2nd best prospect in the Rockies system and was given a future grade of 65 by Baseball America, with a risk factor of “Medium.” According to BA’s grade scale, a player ranked 65-70 is projected as a “No. 2 starter and perennial all-stars in the mold of Adrian Beltre and Jon Lester.” As far as the risk factor, “Medium” equates to “still some work to do to turn tools into major league-caliber skills.”
One disappointing year later, however, and BA had downgraded Butler to a future grade of just 55, with a “High” risk factor. The reason for this was not as much pitching related as it had to do with injury concerns. A day after making his Major League debut on June 6, 2014 Butler complained of soreness in his right shoulder and went on to the DL, only to return for a couple of September starts.
Heading into the next season, Kiley McDaniel at Fan Graphs ranked Butler as the 42nd best prospect and gave reasons for both caution and optimism:
The big question scouts have about Butler is his durability. He’s had a lot of minor dings and there’s doubt he can hold up for 200 innings, though everything else is there for him to be a starter. If he has to move to the bullpen he could be a closer, with a fastball that’s been up to 99 mph and a knockout changeup, but Colorado will give him every chance to prove he can stay in the rotation.
Despite the poor results in 2014, Butler still received praise from Baseball America for having three plus pitches in his sinker, changeup and slider, with raw stuff that still gave him a ceiling as a No. 2 starter. Heading into the 2015 season, here’s how Butler ranked in terms of the top prospect rankings:
In 2015, instead of sending Butler out for his first taste of Triple-A action, the Rockies started the season with him as part of their opening day roster. By June the Rockies realized their mistake and sent him down to Triple-A, but instead of letting him get comfortable at that level they called him right back up after six starts despite below average results, striking out just 22 batters to 16 walks in 33 innings.
The Rockies continued to yank Butler up and down during the course of the season, and his numbers at both levels were bludgeoned as a result. In 63 Triple-A innings he had a strikeout rate of just 5.26 K/9 compared to 3.55 BB/9 with a 5.40 ERA, while in 79 MLB innings he put up 4.99 K/9 to 4.76 BB/9 and a 5.90 ERA.
To some it may have looked like the wheels simply came off for Butler, but skipping a level and shuffling back and forth on the bus to the minors, a year after an injury plagued season, and it starts to become clearer why he couldn’t get it together in 2015.
The Rockies wisely started off Butler at Triple-A to start 2016, but after just four starts they couldn’t help themselves and called him up to their rotation. It’s hard to feel bad for anyone getting a call to The Show, but in this case, I can’t help but want to go back in time and plead with the Rockies front office to just let him be, and allow him to work on his game against advanced hitters for an extended period of time before being asked to get MLB hitters out on a consistent basis.
Butler stuck around for two solid months on the Rockies 25-man roster and while the results were much better than the previous year, he couldn’t quite put it all together. His strikeouts went up to 6.61 K/9 and his walk rate fell to 2.95 BB/9 but his improved control came at the expense of the long ball, as Butler’s HR/9 ballooned to 1.83, an unacceptable number for any pitcher.
The question now that Butler is a member of the Chicago Cubs is how much of his premium stuff is still left in the tank? Here’s how Brooks Baseball has tracked the velocity of Butler’s pitches over the years:
The good news is that Butler has maintained the same velocity on his pitches throughout his young career. Another positive to glean from that chart is the way he throws his four-seamer and sinker at the same speed, as well as how his changeup and slider are also thrown at the same speed. This should allow for improved deception, especially if he keeps his release points similar.
The optimist in me looks at Eddie Butler’s pedigree, his repertoire and pure stuff and is incredibly excited that he is now a member of the Cubs organization. In the favorable examples of Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks, we’ve seen what pitching coach Chris Bosio and the rest of the Cubs staff could do with two incredibly different pitchers, helping both to refine their unique abilities into Cy Young-worthy performances. It remains to be seen how consistently either pitcher will remain at that level, but the expectations are now understandably high now that the bar has been set.
Could Butler live up to those expectations? Possibly. Is it fair to expect that? Probably not, but in this new era of being a Cubs fan, optimism rules the day.
Realistically, with some tweaking and a sprinkling of magic dust from Bosio, Eddie Butler could have a chance of turning into the No. 2 starter Baseball America originally projected him to be. Using his plus heavy sinker, Butler should generate a high percentage of ground balls, similar to Jake Arrieta, and with this Cubs defense most of those ground balls are going to turn into outs. With a wipe-out change and a plus slider to work off his two fastballs, as long as Butler throws strikes he should have success. Whether or not that success is in the rotation or the bullpen will come down to durability.
This trade was exactly what the Cubs front office has been looking for. In Eddie Butler, the Cubs have the young cost-controlled starting pitcher with upside that we’ve heard they covet for as long as anyone can remember. While there is less certainty with Butler than there would have been with a Chris Archer or Sonny Gray, those players also cost exponentially more in prospect talent. As Cubs fans have become accustomed to, this was a low risk, high reward move and the potential upside is exactly what this team needs.