April 28, 2011 at 9:30 AM
It’s hard to imagine a better start to the 2011 campaign for Salem Red Sox catcher Dan Butler, who earned Carolina League and SoxProspects.com Player of the Week honors last week after posting a .471/.591/1.118 line with two homers and 14 RBI.
Throw in his improbable two-run home run in Boston’s exhibition finale against the Astros, and Butler, who hit .310 with an .893 OPS during stops in Greenville, Salem, and Pawtucket in 2010, is proving to be one of the most interesting players in the Red Sox farm system.
But it’s also hard to imagine a player who has come farther to make that happen. The effort and perseverance required for Butler to even become a professional ballplayer, along with the tireless work ethic he taught himself at the University of Arizona, go a long way in telling the story of a player who carries a chip on his shoulder onto the field every day.
“That’s not Danny Butler”
A few months after Tommy John surgery ended Butler’s disappointing redshirt-freshman season at the University of Arizona, he showed up to work at the school’s baseball camp. Coach Andy Lopez, who had not seen Butler over the summer, was standing with an assistant coach when Butler walked across the outfield. Lopez, who said Butler was a “little, pudgy, overweight” catcher when he arrived in Tucson, didn’t believe it when the assistant said the shirtless figure in the outfield was Butler.
Said Lopez: “I told him, ‘That’s not Danny Butler.’ I walked down and looked at [Dan] and said, ‘My God.’ He transformed himself from a pudgy, out-of-shape catcher to a Greek god.”
The 5-foot-10 Butler had slimmed down from 225 to 180 pounds. After a short conversation with his astonished coach, the catcher got up to run sprints in the Tucson summer heat.
“When I went into the surgery,” Butler said, “I thought to myself, ‘You better make the most of this now, because your body’s not going to last forever. You might as well get yourself in shape.’ I stayed in Tucson that whole summer. I barely ate, and worked out every day. It became a lifestyle, getting into the gym and all that stuff. I educated myself on what I needed to do and how to go about it.”
Now listed at 190 pounds, Butler believes his improving conditioning hastened his return from surgery, which took just eight months. Although he has not regained full range of motion in his arm—he still cannot touch his shoulder with his right hand—Butler shows no ill-effects in his throwing, having thrown out a respectable 41 of 107 potential base stealers in his first two professional seasons.
In his second season at Arizona, the newly-fit Butler saw more playing time, but hit just .268 in 56 at-bats. As a junior, he hit .263 with three home runs and 18 RBI in 76 at-bats. Twenty-two of his 46 career starts came that season.
“He didn’t play as much as I’m sure he wanted to, and in retrospect, he should have played more,” Lopez said. “And I want to make this clear: He wasn’t playing a lot, but not because he wasn’t good enough. He was plenty good enough. But we had a starter who played for two years. We had to find Danny playing time.”
That starter was Dwight Childs, a highly-touted defensive catcher whose .253 career average at Arizona was just three points higher than Butler’s. Childs went to Cleveland in the 18th round of the 2009 Draft, and has played just 31 games professionally since. Scouts told Butler he could be a late-round pick that June, but he wasn’t surprised when the draft passed without a call.
“It’s hard to draft a guy that doesn’t really play, but I knew I could play.” Butler said. “I wasn’t like, ‘Oh my God, I didn’t get drafted. I’m going to quit baseball.’ It was kind of up in the air anyway.”
The next step was summer ball. Butler had enjoyed playing for the Bend (Ore.) Elks of the West Coast League the previous summer, but with the stakes now raised, he decided to ply his trade against the nation’s best college players in the Cape Cod League.
“I went to the Cape to be signed (by a major league team), but I just really wanted to play summer ball again,” he said. “I wanted to play in the league where everybody wants to play. I went and just did what I knew I could.”
Even there, Butler was slighted. After 10 games with Yarmouth-Dennis, he was released to make room for LSU catcher Micah Gibbs. The Brewster Whitecaps signed him to be their everyday catcher, and manager Tom Myers told the Cape Cod Journal that Butler immediately became a leader behind the plate for the club.
Butler’s efforts did not go unnoticed. He was selected as a reserve in the 2009 Cape League All-Star Game, playing in the July 23 showcase game at Fenway Park. Four days later, the Red Sox signed him for $10,000 and sent him to Lowell.
Though signing officially ended his time at Arizona, Lopez has kept Butler’s memory alive in Tucson.
“He’s a legend around here,” Lopez said. “I still use him as an example when guys lose weight, get in the weight room and attack it physically. He’s a great young man with a tremendous work ethic. He made himself a college catcher.”
“He’s opened a lot of eyes”
“He’s opened a lot of eyes”
If it seemed like the Red Sox did not exactly treat Butler like a top prospect after he signed, it’s because he wasn’t. When he arrived at short-season Lowell, the coaching staff didn’t know what to make of him.
“We didn’t know much about him at all,” said Salem pitching coach Kevin Walker, who was the Spinners' pitching coach in 2009. Walker was also with Butler in Greenville in 2010. “We needed him in Lowell as a backup at the time, but when he got his opportunity, he made the most of it.”
After hitting .179 in 22 games with Lowell, Butler jumped up to High-A Salem for a few late-season games, indicating that the comfort and development of the organization’s other catchers, such as Ryan Lavarnway (in Greenville at the time) were more important than Butler’s.
Despite the poor debut, Butler’s first full season was an unqualified success. He broke camp with the Low-A Drive in 2010 and quickly became one of the biggest surprises in the entire Red Sox system. He was the Red Sox Minor League Defensive Player of the Month in April, and was named a South Atlantic League All-Star, walking and scoring a run in front of the hometown fans at the All-Star Game in Greenville.
He hit .327 with 6 home runs and 31 RBI for the Drive, but before he could be promoted to Salem, the front office sent him on a small detour - Butler earned a brief call-up to Triple-A Pawtucket. He called his week-long stay in Rhode Island a whirlwind experience, one in which the older players were incredibly helpful in making the young catcher feel comfortable. He went hitless in five at-bats, but the promotion showed that the front office believed he could handle Triple-A pitching.
His return to Greenville lasted just over a week before he was called up to Salem to replace Lavarnway, who had been promoted to Portland. He hit .292 in 35 games with Salem, taking over as everyday catcher when fellow backstop Tim Federowicz went down with an injury. Butler credits his prior experience in the Carolina League for his hot start this season, but says he approaches every game and every season the same way.
“I feel like I’ve got to perform every day,” Butler said. “(The Red Sox) have nothing invested in me. It’s easy to let a guy go. I’ve got to show intensity and energy every day I come out to the field. There’s always somebody out there who’s just as good as you. It’s all about who outworks who.”
Butler’s impressive first month has caught the right people’s attention.
“Dan has continued to make an impact on both sides of the ball, and that has not gone unnoticed,” said Ben Crockett, Boston’s Assistant Director of Player Development. “His makeup, offensive approach, and catch-and-throw skills make him an interesting prospect who the organization holds in high regard.”
And while he tries not to concern himself with what he can’t control, Butler is aware of the system’s catching situation, along with his place in it.
“I just go out there and play every day,” he said. “You know what’s going on, but you can’t really do anything about it, so why worry? If you do well, you get the results. That’s what they want. If it’s the right time, you get the call-up.”
For now, waiting a little bit for that call-up might be better for Butler. In Salem, he is the team’s primary catcher, and has caught 13 of the their first 18 games. With Michael McKenry and Luis Exposito in Pawtucket and Lavarnway and Federowicz in Portland, there doesn’t look to be an immediate opening should Butler master the Carolina League, at least for now.
Salem manager Bruce Crabbe has been impressed by his starting catcher so far, and predicts a bright future for Butler, regardless of whether he is blocked.
“He’s come a long way in his rise through this organization, and he’s opened a lot of eyes,” said Crabbe. “He’s made himself into a prospect in a short period of time. He still has a lot to learn, but he has a ceiling to get even better.”