SURPRISE, Ariz. -- He plays in Missouri, he amassed 299 total bases last season while batting .300, he had 73 extra-base hits. He isn't Matt Holliday. And he certainly didn't sign a $120 million contract after an offseason spent in the headlines. Say hello to the Royals' Billy Butler, who will turn 24 on April 18 and hopes to be spending the rest of the 2010 season turning the corner from anonymity to celebrity.
"Obviously, last year I was still young and I hadn't yet had a tremendous breakout season," said Butler, contemplating a role as one of baseball's best-kept secrets. "I'll be more disappointed if I'm still called a secret after this season. "I feel like last year I didn't really have anything to build on. I figure if I have another season like that, I'll be someone who should've already been noticed. So I'll be more disappointed if I have the 'secret' label after this year." Butler's breakout 2009 was hardly freakish, rather the next logical plateau in his progression. As a 159-game workhorse, he batted .301 and drove in 93 runs, and his 51 doubles, a triple and 21 homers added up to 299 total bases to tie the output of a heavy hitter in the St. Louis Cardinals' lineup. Told that he had as many total bases as someone who plays a couple hundred miles from him, Butler tilted his head in thought, then nailed it. "Probably Matt Holliday. I know [Albert] Pujols had more than me. But absolutely, that's definitely good company to be in. [Holliday] is a good hitter." That may sound like faint praise, but is the highest compliment in the vein one Major Leaguer will salute another with "He can play." Thus, Billy Butler can hit. In three seasons of steadily increasing playing time and production, he has hit .291 with 40 homers, 96 doubles and 200 RBIs. Butler feels he hit better last season because, maturation and experience aside, the Royals allowed him on the field. A natural third baseman, Butler took over as Kansas City's first-base regular after having served as the designated hitter in 151 of his 216 games in 2007-08.
For a recent No. 1 Draft choice -- the 14th overall pick in the 2004 First-Year Player Draft -- being told to DH is like being told, "You have two left feet.""As a younger player, playing DH took a toll mentally on me every day," Butler said. "As you get older, you're probably better able to adjust to it. You've already been around for a long time and have proved yourself a lot of years at a position. So you're comfortable as a DH later in your career, not when you're younger. Every day, you feel like you have more to prove. You put too much emphasis on every at-bat. "So," Butler added, "there was nothing tough for me about [moving to a new position]. The tough part was DH, so I loved every minute of being on the field. I was just excited to be out there. Absolutely, you feel more into the game. I'm fine with playing first base every single day." Manager Trey Hillman is fine with it, too. On a team with a lot of moving parts, the first baseman is a rare fixture. "Butler's a solid, young hitter and you know the production you'll get from him," Hillman said. Butler takes some responsibility for Kansas City's rank as the American League's worst defensive team. He himself committed 10 errors, a moderate total for a first baseman, but 66 of the Royals' league-high 117 errors were by other infielders. "I'm just working on everything to try to improve," Butler said. "The goal is to minimize the mistakes and make the good plays, and I'm working hard toward that goal. Every good infield has a good first baseman, and I want to make as many plays as I can and save as many errors as I can." Wanting to prevent others' errors is characteristic of Butler's priorities, summed up by his take on the 2009 season, which was exceptional for him but excruciating for the team. Ninety-seven losses disappointed the Royals and added up to their 14th losing season in 15. That's what made Butler eager for the winter to dissolve into spring and the chance to start fresh, not the promise of another personally gratifying season. "It's just good to be back on the field, playing," he said. "We didn't have a good '09 season, so it's good to get back going. I look at it from a team perspective: I had a good season personally, but we're in it to win a championship, and not performing up to what we expected of ourselves made for a long offseason. "Absolutely, we're on the right track here. We have the right people and the right management. We trust them, and they're getting the right players in. We just have to make it happen on the field. We have the talent; we just have to translate it into production." Another translation: Butler would like to see his 299 total bases to do as much for the Royals as that other guy's did for the Cardinals.