At a position that could probably be best described as a logjam over the past several years, the Royals now have young, homegrown options for the future.
After attempting to plug the hole at first base with castoff sluggers in 2009, the Royals finally handed the role to two products of their farm system with the hope they could develop into solid contributors at the position.
The Mike Jacobs era lasted one inglorious season, producing just 19 homers and 61 RBI with a .228 average in 2009. The team saw enough potential in Billy Butler to allow him to play a handful of games at first toward the end of the year before they released Jacobs over the winter.
The Royals also let costly acquisition Ryan Shealy go over the winter. They are now fully committed to players they have drafted and developed – Butler and three promising minor leaguers.
Kila Ka’aihue spent most of the season at AAA Omaha, hitting .319 with a .463 on-base percentage and 76 RBI while crushing 24 homers in just 94 games.
Prized prospect Eric Hosmer torched pitching at High A Wilmington and AA Northwest Arkansas. The third pick in the 2008 draft combined for 20 HR and 86 RBI, zooming to the top of the rankings of minor league prospects. Rangy and athletic, Hosmer may already be the best fielding first baseman in the organization.
And the player who had perhaps the best season of all in 2010 may have received the least attention. Clint Robinson won the Texas League Triple Crown while having to share time down the stretch with Hosmer.
Two of these four will most likely play every day for the Royals in 2011. The late-season trade of Jose Guillen opened up the designated hitter spot in the Royals lineup, allowing both Ka’aihue and Butler to play every day. One of these four first base prospects will most likely fill the DH role for the near future.
Three questions will need answers as the Royals evaluate their prospects at first base/DH.
1) Can Ka’aihue hit consistently enough at the big-league level? 2) Will Hosmer get moved ahead of Robinson in the minor-league pecking order? 3) Is a move to an outfield position in the future for one of these players?
Robinson may end up the odd man out in the situation. He will turn 26 this winter and despite putting up good numbers, has risen slowly. The Royals don’t appear willing to put any roadblock in Hosmer’s path, meaning he may get the nod as the every day first baseman at AAA Omaha. Robinson could play DH at Omaha, or he could attempt a move to the outfield.
Ka’aihue, who will turn 27 before next season, has struggled with big league pitching but showed some promise down the stretch in 2010. In 52 games, he recorded 8 homers and 25 RBIs, but just a .217 average. Ka’aihue could have spent more time on the Royals bench, but manager Ned Yost said in the spring he preferred that Ka’aihue play every day at Omaha, calling him “a huge part of our future.”
Butler will definitely take one of the spots in the lineup, be it first base or DH. The Royals have been happy with his progress with the glove, but occasional mental lapses demonstrate his lack of familiarity with the position.
At the plate, Butler boasted a .318 average, good for 6th in the American League. But for a slow-running average fielder, more pop than 15 homers would be preferred. His strikeout to walk ratio improved, but he still hits into too many double plays – he led the league with 32. But all things considered, at just 24 and with four major league seasons under his belt, Butler is the closest thing the Royals have to a star hitter. He’s never hit below .275 and already has 590 career hits.
If Butler is a budding star, the Royals hope Hosmer is a super-star in the making. Baseball America tabbed him as it’s all-star first baseman for all levels of the minor leagues. Hosmer proved skeptics who doubted him after a luke-warm 2009 debut wrong. He recovered from a hand injury and opted for LASIK eye surgery during the off-season, then unleashed a power outbreak that culminated with 6 homers and 12 RBIs in 9 playoff games for Northwest Arkansas. His off-season plans include winter action with Team USA and in the Arizona Fall League.
Most likely 2011 will see first base and DH split almost exclusively between Butler and Ka’aihue. This will be Ka’aihue’s one chance to prove he belongs at the big league level before Hosmer and Robinson advance. Trades or a position change will be part of the discussion before 2012 as there won’t be room for all four in the system and as Ka’aihue and Robinson enter their late 20s.
Too many quality players at one position is a good problem for the Royals. And it’s a far cry for the logjam of Jacobs, Shealy and others imported to plug the hole. Looking to become challengers in the American League in coming years, Butler and Hosmer in particular give fans hope.