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Friday, May 07, 2010

The Mishandled Hawaiian

Ragging on Kansas City's front office feels a bit like beating a three-legged dog...that is, if the dog had chewed off its own leg than stubbornly insisted he was better off that way.  The Royals have made laughable decision after laughable decision over the course of the last fifteen years, spanning the tenures of three GMs and seven managers.

Among the most recent and the most ridiculous has been their handling of top prospect, Kila Ka'aihue.  The Royals, then under the supervision of Allan Baird, drafted Ka'aihue in 2002.  He was clearly an excellent find in the 15th round.  During his late teens and early twenties, in the low minors, he developed power and patience, consistently improving his BB/K ratios, his OBP and SLG, as well as his defense, culminating in a bit of a breakout year in 2008, at the age of 24.  In 124 games between AA and AAA, Ka'aihue hit .314 with 37 HR, 100 RBI, a 1085 OPS, and a ridiculous 104/67 BB/K ratio (seriously, that's Pujols-esque).

In a twelve-game cup of coffee in September of that year, Ka'aihue acquitted himself admirably, managing an 804 OPS, with homer and only two strikeouts in 24 plate appearances.  For an apparently rebuilding franchise, this appeared to be player primed for his shot.  Most teams, I think it's safe to say, put in K.C.'s position, would've handed Kila first base on Opening Day of 2009 and given him several months (at least) to prove his worthiness, much like the Marlins are doing this year with Gaby Sanchez.  What's the worst that could've happened?  They Royals could've won less than 65 games?

Naturally, K.C. went in another direction.  They sent one of their most talented relievers, from a bullpen which has been consistently short on talent in recent year, to Florida for Mike Jacobs, an iron-gloved, lead-footed strikeout machine (with power!) who proceeded to put together a season for the ages.  Jacobs hit 19 HR, but batted just .228, struck out more than once per game, and posted an OBP (.297) which was easily the worst among major-league first baseman and among the worst in all of baseball.  According to FanGraphs' Wins Above Replacement statistic, Mike Jacobs was worth less than the average AAA player and was the fifth worst player in the major leagues among players who got at least 450 plate appearances in '09.

Meanwhile, Ka'aihue, perhaps frustrated with languishing in Omaha for another season, did regress from his '08 totals, managed only 17 HR and a respectable 825 OPS.  He still displayed incredible discipline, walking on 102 occasions, while striking out 85 times.

This spring, Ka'aihue, now 26-years-old, again arrived at Royals camp with almost no chance of making the big-league team.  Billy Butler, Kansas City's best player, is now entrenched at first, and the strange offseason addition of retreads like Rick Ankiel, Scott Podsednik, and Josh Fields made a crowded field at DH.  Kila had an excellent spring, but was headed to minor-league camp by the middle of March.

On Wednesday, following injuries to Ankiel and Fields, and the demotion of Alex Gordon, the Royals final promoted Kila, who was back to raking, hitting .304 with 7 HR and a 1086 OPS at AAA in the early going.

When teams promote a prospect, what do they usually do?  They "get his feet wet."  They usually insert him directly in the lineup, at least for his first game with the team.  It's what the Tigers did with Brennan Boesch (who's looking outstanding, by the way).  It's what Texas did with Justin Smoak and Max Ramirez.  It's what the Pirates did with Steven Pearce.  IT'S WHAT EVERYBODY DOES.

But not the Royals.  Two games later, Ka'aihue had yet to get his first MLB appearance.  His sizzling bat set cooling on the Royals bench as Kansas City's patchwork roster got pummeled by the Rangers.  In the late innings, the Royals mounted an unlikely comeback.  And, in the top of the eighth the game was tied and the Royals had a man on second base.

So, naturally, with the game on the line, Trey Hillman sent Ka'aihue to the plate for his first major-league at-bat since September of 2008.  Not only was he pinch-hitting against one of Texas's top reliever, Frank Francisco, which is rarely a recipe for success even for established players; but he was a rookie who hadn't played in game action for three days and was inserted into a critical situation in a game on the road.

Kila drove a singe down the right-field line and picked up the RBI.

He was immediately lifted for a pinch-runner.

If Ka'aihue does eventually become a competent major-league player, which I fully believe he will be, K.C.'s conservative ineptitude will have cost him at least two years of service time, not to mention the franchise millions of dollars (wasted on Jacobs, Ankiel, and the like).  It seems just a matter of time before Ka'aihue sees his star rise with another club.  The only question is what package of overpriced hogwash the Royals will demand in return.

One really can't imagine what Dayton Moore is hoping to accomplish with this year's Royals team, which is already eight games back in the AL Central (only Baltimore and Houston are sitting on bigger deficits).  One does not build a team around spare parts like Scott Podsednik and Jason Kendall.  Those are pieces which should get introduced to a team already on the verge of contention.  Ka'aihue needs to play everyday.  As does Mike Aviles, Alberto Callaspo, and Alex Gordon.  If the Royals are going to compete before the end of this decade, it will be because that core of relatively young, talented, inexpensive, and homegrown players are providing much of their offense.

Free Kila.

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