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Catcher Butler emerges from backup to prospect

07.19.10 at 1:53 pm ET
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He could have quit after spending his redshirt freshman year at the University of Arizona riding the Mendoza Line and being relegated to the backup catcher position, but he stuck with the program.

He could have thrown in the towel after injuring his throwing elbow and requiring Tommy John surgery a mere 15 games into that same freshman season, but he fought through it.

No one would have blamed him if he decided to call it a career when he wasn’€™t drafted in his junior year with any of the 1,521 picks from the 30 teams in the 2009 MLB Draft, but he decided to prove them all wrong by playing in the Cape Cod League.

Playing with the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox and the Brewster Whitecaps in 2009, Dan Butler got the chance that he needed. In 28 games, Butler batted .246 with a .379 on base percentage and a .333 slugging percentage, solid numbers in a pitcher-dominated league.

It was his prowess behind the plate, however, that most impressed his Whitecaps manager, Tom Myers.

‘€œHe could call a great game and he led our pitching staff,’€ said Myers.

His strength on both sides of the ball led to an appearance in the Cape League All-Star Game at Fenway. Butler didn’€™t do too much in that game, but the tenants of Fenway, the Red Sox, took notice of him and when there was a shortage of catchers with their low-A team in Lowell four days later, Butler was brought in to fill the gap.

Again, Butler struggled in Lowell, maintaining a .178/.261/.282 line in 24 games, but adversity was nothing new. He just needed to take what he had been given and reverse the circumstances.

From Arizona to the Cape

A local kid from Phoenix, Arizona, Butler redshirted his freshman year at Arizona and took a shot at cracking the starting lineup as the team’€™s catcher. It looked as though Butler and another freshman, Dwight Childs, would be splitting time behind the plate, but after booking seven starts and 15 games, Butler suffered a dreaded injury, blowing out his throwing elbow.

He would need Tommy John surgery and he had to give over the catching position to Childs. His elbow and possibly his baseball career were broken and he barely even had a chance to make an impact. Still, his confidence wasn’€™t broken.

‘€œWhen I hurt the arm, that’€™s when I got a wakeup call, telling myself that you’ve got to get yourself ready to play every day,” Butler said. “The only way I can do that is by lifting weights every day in the offseason and during the season. You’ve got to control and take care of your body.’€

Butler rehabbed and he managed to return for a second year, but so did Childs. Butler had to accept the backup position and he did marginally better his second year, pulling a .268/.364/.375 line over 35 games. For his final year at Arizona in 2009, Butler had more at bats than any other season and even hit his first NCAA home run, but the damage was already done.

Despite having a .263/.389/.408 line in his junior year, his position as backup was cemented and he decided to enter the 2009 draft, hoping to go out and make an impact as a starter in the minor leagues.

With a serious injury already pasted to his baseball resume and too few at bats to show his true potential, all 30 teams passed on Butler.

‘€œI felt like if I had been given a little more chance, I might have been able to get the draft to work out,’€ said Butler. ‘€œOnce the draft is over, it doesn’€™t matter anymore. You’€™re in the same group as everybody else is and you try to go up the ladder now.’€

Deciding to get out of the desert and show what he could do against top college talent, Butler packed up and went to the Cape, where many college baseball players make the exact same trip with the exact same intentions.

‘€œMy goal was to go out and try to get my name out there by going to the Cape,’€ said Butler. ‘€œGuys try to go out there and have professional teams see you and hopefully get a good interest in you.’€

He broke in with Yarmouth-Dennis and did not distinguish himself, batting .240 in 25 plate appearances, but when he went to play for Brewster that same year, things finally took a turn for the better. Butler carried himself well offensively, but the way he handled the pitching staff was instrumental.

‘€œWe had him for a short period of time, and that guy was one heck of a catcher,’€ said Myers, the Brewster coach. ‘€œDuring the period of time that we had him, we were doing really well and our pitchers were having a lot of success, so I can see why it’€™s translating at the next level.’€

The Sox took notice.

‘€œEveryone that we talked to on the Cape last year, the coaches of his and other teams kept saying, ‘€˜You’€™ve got to sign this guy. This guy’€™s a prospect. I don’€™t know why he wasn’€™t playing [at Arizona], but he’€™s a prospect,’€™’€ said the Red Sox farm director, Mike Hazen.

‘€œ[Director of Amateur Scouting] Jason [McLeod] called me and said, ‘€˜we’€™re getting unbelievable makeup reports, unbelievable talent reports, we’€™re watching the kid and he’€™s playing well and we really want to sign him.’€™’€

Four days after the Cape Cod League All-Star Game at Fenway, Butler was called on to join the Spinners when they ran short on catchers. Again he didn’€™t do well offensively, but it was his work with the pitching staff that motivated the organization to hold onto him.

At the conclusion of his up-and-down season, Butler went home in the offseason. He received advice about how to approach the game, both offensively and defensively. Maybe even more importantly, however, Butler took a new approach to how he prepared himself to play.

‘€œThe main focus was to get my body to the top shape I was able to get to,” said Butler, “and the other was to change my mental perspective about how I approach it and that’€™s going out every day and giving it everything I’€™ve got.’€

Those are easy things for any baseball player to say, but the difference for Butler was that he actually made them work.

A Fresh Start

The 2010 season was a fresh one for Butler: new team, new opportunities. He played for the Red Sox Single-A farm team, the Greenville Drive, and immediately became comfortable. He produced one of the more unexpected seasons among Sox minor leaguers, hitting .327 with a .406 OBP, .523 slugging mark and .929 OPS for the Drive.

All of a sudden, Butler went from a defensive rock to an offensive factor.

‘€œ[Butler came] to the Cape Cod League and [showed] that he’€™s a very skilled player. He’€™s putting up the numbers now and numbers are what get you to the next level,’€ said Myers.

That proved true in Butler’s case earlier this month. With Pawtucket’€™s Mark Wagner and Dusty Brown injuring their left hands and Víctor Martínez and Jason Varitek getting injured on the big league club, the top of the organization was quickly running thin on backstops.

Before he knew it, Butler was moved up for a few games to Triple-A Pawtucket. The decision to do so reflected two things. First, the organization felt that it was better to move one catcher all the way from Single-A to Triple-A, rather than bumping three catchers up by one level each. Secondly, the team felt that Butler had shown he could handle such an assignment.

‘€œHe’€™s an advanced catcher coming out of college and someone we trust with our pitching staff,’€ said Red Sox GM Theo Epstein. ‘€œHe’€™s doing a surprisingly good job offensively and he’€™s an interesting kid.’€

For Butler, on the other hand, the experience wasn’€™t about what was to come, but rather about what he’€™s accomplished so far’€¦ and how far he still has to go.

‘€œI enjoyed every minute just being (in Pawtucket) and I learned a lot just from hearing the other guys talk and the coaches talk,” said Butler. “The speed of the game is a little bit faster there, but everybody at this level is at the same ability as at that level.’€

Moving Up

That may be something of an exaggeration. Plenty of players in the South Atlantic League will never see a day above that level because their talent does not permit them to move.

Butler, who was initially returned to Greenville from Pawtucket, is not one of them. Already, he has been promoted, getting moved up to High-A Salem last Thursday for the second half of the season. It is the first of what could prove several promotions, as his game this year has left Sox evaluators convinced that he can reach the game’s highest level.

‘€œThis guy’€™s been unbelievable ‘€“ the way he’€™s run the pitching staff, his energy, the confidence he has, his maturity even for his inexperience in professional baseball,’€ said Hazen. ‘€œHe’€™s a good sign. There are a lot of guys who walk out of there and say, ‘€˜I don’€™t know when or how, but Dan Butler is going to play in the big leagues someday.’€™’€

There have even been rumblings and comparisons from many about the connection between Butler and another Daniel in the organization who has been integral for the Red Sox this season: Daniel Nava.

‘€œLook at Daniel Nava. He went undrafted. You look at Dan Butler, a kid who played at Arizona but never played, backed up, and now he’€™s getting an opportunity to play and look what he’€™s doing. He’€™s played himself into being a prospect. These stories motivate the hell out of people and it’€™s awesome to see,’€ said Red Sox minor league catching instructor Chad Epperson. ‘€œAt some point in time, [Butler] will be a big leaguer.’€

Alex Speier contributed to this story.

Read More: Brewster, Dan Butler, daniel nava, Pawtucket
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