Thursday, March 22, 2007

Billy Butler Headed for Omaha Despite Huge Spring

Top Royals hitting prospect Billy Butler can be expected to be sent down to the minor league camp any moment despite batting .419 with a .774 slugging average for spring, and coming off a 2006 season at Wichita where he hit .337 with 96 RBI with just 67 strikeouts in 447 at-bats.

Though the 20-year-old future phenom's bat is major league ready, the Royals want him to work on his defensive play in the Omaha outfield, particularly his reads off the bat and his routing to the ball. Butler, a former third baseman, has had such difficulty converting to the outfield that he would best be used as designated hitter, but the team is committed to veteran Mike Sweeney at that position.

Sweeney, 33, who not so long ago projected as an excellent defender at first base and probable for 30-35 homers and a .325 average, has been tagged by numerous experts as a player headed for trouble, and a virtual certainty to miss significant time in the coming season.

Writing in the 2007 Baseball Injury Report, published by Shandler Enterprises, athletic trainer Rick Wilton warns that Sweeney's career is in "sharp decline" due to multiple troubles with his back and a muriad of other injuries including a sprained wrist, sprained elbow and sore hip.

Wilton lists Sweeney as one of seven injury-prone players to avoid at all costs, the others being Alex Escobar, Christian Guzman, Chris Snelling, Dallas McPherson, Mike Matheny and Brian Jordan. The outlook has already proven particularly prescient in the case of Matheny, who recently announced his retirement, and McPherson, who is out for the year due to back surgery and whose return by 2008 is dicey at best.

When Sweeney goes down, it will be interesting to see how quickly the team turns to Butler. The problem is that Butler stands in line behind a number of players already on the roster, including Ross Gload and Reggie Sanders, likely to share time in left; Emil Brown, in line for the fourth or fifth outfield spot; and young Justin Huber, a backup first baseman with some upside.