By Eriq Gardner //
Kila Ka’aihue is zooming up the charts as a potential breakout player for the 2011 season. In 46 spring training at-bats, the Royals first-baseman has hit .413/.449/.804 with 5 HRs and 2 SBs. Not only has Ka’aihue finally won a full-time job at the age of 26, but Royals manager Ned Yost has praised his defensive progress too, telling reporters that Ka’aihue should see more time at first-base than Billy Butler this season.
For the past few years, Ka’aihue has generated a lot of conversation in the scouting community.
On one hand, Ka’aihue has demonstrated the rare combination of elite power and excellent plate discipline. In the last three seasons in the minors, Ka’aihue has slugged a home run once every 19 at-bats and walked 206 times compared to just 152 strikeouts in 842 at-bats.
These stats are very noteworthy. When his time at AA and AAA gets translated into a full-season 2011 MLB projection, the results raise eyebrows. Most services project 20 HRs in under 500 at-bats, presumably giving him a shot at 30 HRs with a healthy on-base percentage if he plays a full season in the bigs.
Will that happen?
Ka’aihue has his doubters, too.
Some point to the fact that he achieved those gaudy statistics in the minors at a relatively advanced age. Others have labeled him a “Quad-A Player,” too good for the minors and maybe not good enough for the majors, on the belief that the much-better breaking stuff of MLB pitchers will eventually bedevil Ka’aihue. Finally, a few point to results from Ka’aihue’s debut at the major-league level last season, which at first glance, don’t seem very promising.
We’re on the sunny side here.
Ka’aihue may have achieved enormous things in the minors at the age of 25, which is a little bit old, but still youthful enough it shouldn’t be dismissed. Other players have succeeded after proving themselves in the minors at advanced ages. Nelson Cruz, for one, didn’t hit it big in the majors until age 28. Plus, Ka’aihue was knocking them out of the park and showing his great plate discipline all the way back in 2004-05 at Single-A when he was just 19 years old. He’s been overdue for a call-up for some time now, so it can hardly be counted against him that he hasn’t gotten a real shot.
Some might suggest that 2010 was his opportunity to prove himself. Last year, he suffered a .217 AVG in 180 at-bats.
Look closer, however, and last season gives more reason for hope than otherwise. He struggled badly in his first 84 at-bats in August, as do most call-ups, but then had a pretty outstanding September when nobody was looking. In 84 September at-bats, Ka’aihue hit .274 with 6 HRs. His OPS was ninth among first basemen in baseball that month.
Ka’aihue still has plenty to prove, especially when pitchers learn his tendencies and shy away from giving him fast-balls down the plate. But all evidence so far suggests he’s not a free swinger. He’ll take the walk if necessary and make pitchers put them in the strike zone.
Ka’aihue finally gets his chance to shine now, worrying those who imagine the Hawaiian-born slugger will feel some pressure to perform quickly, after being forced to bide his time so long, especially with one of the game’s best prospects, Eric Hosmer, waiting in the wings. The fact that Ka’aihue plays on the Kansas City Royals, however, might turn out to be advantageous. The team won’t contend for the division this season and have no reason to start Hosmer’s arbitration eligibility clock early. Ka’aihue knows better than anybody the organization’s commitment to “patience.”
He could very easily fulfill the potential of his minor league career and hot spring training. Ka’aihue has waited for this opportunity; it doesn’t mean fantasy competitors should be as unhurried when seeing him available in a league.