The A’s in-season makeover continued Sunday. Shortly after they released designated hitter Billy Butler, a 10-year veteran and their highest-paid player, the A’s took the field behind right-handed pitcher Raul Alcantara, a prospect making his second major-league start.
Alcantara got the A’s to the sixth inning tied with the Seattle Mariners, an improvement over his shaky debut last week. Oakland lost 3-2 when closer Ryan Madson allowed three consecutive hits in the ninth, including the go-ahead single by Seattle shortstop Ketel Marte.
The A’s fell a season-high 22 games under .500 and clinched a losing record, ensuring their first consecutive losing seasons since three in a row from 2007 to 2009.
While certainly not the lone reason for the drop-off, Butler did not produce as the A’s had hoped when they signed him to a three-year, $30 million contract before last season. He began this season in a reduced role, mostly playing against left-handed pitching, and his playing time further diminished recently as the A’s began calling up prospects to evaluate for future seasons.
The A’s still owe Butler nearly $11.7 million for next season, minus a pro-rated portion of the league minimum if another team signs him.
“This was the right time to move on,” A’s general manager David Forst said Sunday. “With a lot of younger players here now ... the at-bats just weren’t there. It’s time to move our focus beyond.”
A’s manager Bob Melvin said “it just never ended up being a great fit here” for Butler. The 30-year-old arrived in Oakland as a career .295 hitter but totaled a .258 average with 19 home runs and 96 RBIs in just under two seasons with the A’s and chafed at being platooned.
Butler also was involved last month in a clubhouse altercation with teammate Danny Valencia that left Butler on the concussion disabled list. However, Forst, Melvin and Butler said Sunday that incident did not factor into Butler’s release.
The move came shortly after the struggling A’s traded veteran Coco Crisp to Cleveland, and Butler said it did not come as a huge surprise.
“Now that Coco’s gone, I was the highest-paid player,” Butler said. “You’re not going to let guys making that much just sit around and not make a move eventually.”
Asked why things didn’t work out for Butler in Oakland, Forst said: “I wish I knew the answer to that question. Obviously, he didn’t perform last year up to what we expected, and coming into this year, it was tough for him to ever get going. We made some moves last season that took away from some of his opportunities this year.
“He obviously still has ability. He just wasn’t going to be a fit here.”
Melvin said the A’s likely will rotate different players, mostly veterans, into the DH spot. Khris Davis started there Sunday, singled leading off the second inning and scored when Seattle’s James Paxton issued a bases-loaded walk. Yonder Alonso’s ensuing sacrifice fly tied the score 2-2, and the A’s were held scoreless for the next seven innings.
Alcantara allowed a two-run homer to Mariners catcher Mike Zunino in the second but nothing more while throwing 104 pitches and departing with two outs in the sixth. It was a marked improvement over his last outing against the Angels, in which he allowed five runs in three innings and looked rattled early in his big-league debut.
“You could tell he was a lot more poised when he went out there,” Melvin said. “He was throwing strikes right away. That’s what they’ve seen all year out of him.”
Alcantara agreed that he felt more comfortable in his second start, saying via interpreter Alex Arpiza: “I focused on pitching my game and not trying to make the perfect pitch like last time.”
Another positive development on the pitching front: Sonny Gray, who’s recovering from a forearm strain, threw about a dozen pitches off a mound before Sunday’s game and “felt great,” Melvin said. Gray will accompany the A’s on their upcoming trip and throw a bullpen session in Kansas City. If he remains on track, Melvin said, Gray could pitch in a game again this season, probably in relief.