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Clearing Up A Potential Logjam

When the Royals drafted Eric Hosmer in the first round of the 2008 draft, they drafted him with an eye obviously on the future. At the time, I think they were looking to probably 2012, maybe as late as 2013, but far enough down the road that they couldn’t worry about who might be ahead of him at that time. He was one of the highest upside high school bats available at a position that produces more sure things than the others, so it was the smart draft choice. Obviously after a fantastic 2010 season that re-established Hosmer as one of baseball’s very best prospects, the decision has seemingly been vindicated. Now, though, the timetable has moved up and there’s serious talk of Hosmer being ready for the Majors in 2011. I talked about this a few days ago when I mentioned that Yost practically guaranteed that both Moustakas and Hosmer would be Major Leaguers this year.

The good problem that the Royals have is that they might have too many bodies for one or two places. As it stands right now, the Opening Day first base/designated hitter combination is Billy Butler and Kila Ka’aihue. We all know about both of them, and we all know that Billy is a legitimate Major League bat and that he just signed that team friendly contract extension. We also know that Kila Ka’aihue has put up video game numbers in the minors in two of the past three seasons and really needs a shot in the Majors. His progress and playing time is secondary, though, to Hosmer. So when Hosmer is ready, the odds are pretty good that Kila has to step aside in some fashion.

So the question is what the Royals will do when that time comes, apparently later on in the 2011 season. This is exactly why the Royals needed to give Kila Ka’aihue a shot to be the everyday first baseman or DH or some combination of that in 2009 rather than trading a viable bullpen arm for Mike Jacobs. As a bit of a sidebar, it’s moves like that particular one that will always leave me a little bit leery of Dayton Moore as a championship general manager no matter how many outstanding moves he makes or if he is able to lead the Royals to a championship. Had the Royals given Ka’aihue that shot, he’d be entering his third season or would have flamed out and there would be no problem at all. They’d know exactly what they had and wouldn’t have to work off minor league statistics plus a few months in the Majors to determine what to do with him. Instead, that’s all they have and come Hosmer time the Royals and other teams will only have about 500 at bats worth of data on Ka’aihue.

We can be pretty confident that whenever Hosmer is ready, he will be in the Majors and somebody has to go. In spite of the big contract just signed by Butler, Hosmer may even precedence over him. So when Hosmer is ready for the big time, one of those two must go. The odds are pretty good that Ka’aihue will be the one to go so we’ll focus mostly on those chances, but let’s start with the Butler options to get them out of the way. The only thing to do with Butler if he is being replaced is to trade him. I think, from the right team, the Royals could get a fairly decent haul for him. A team like the Nationals might be a good fit for Butler as they are on the search for a long-term option at first base. This is not a move I’d advocate, but if they did decide to trade Butler I’d expect a top five prospect, a top 15 prospect and a solid bullpen arm in return. Between his production and the contract he has, he’s worth a lot. I shudder at the thought of trading him, though, because it’s important to have veteran, proven bats rather than forcing young players to have to shoulder the load.

So if Butler isn’t getting traded, that leaves something to be done with Kila. Obviously the preference is to trade him, so the Royals have to hope that he produces a big first half so they’re not trading him for peanuts. Ka’aihue’s trade value is pretty low, and I’m not sure how much that will change regardless of his performance in the first half of 2011. Based on his projections, I think most teams would be wary of a severe drop off in production within the next two or three years. A lot of people have compared Ka’aihue to Travis Hafner, and he fell off a cliff pretty quickly in his career. Now, a portion of that was aided by injury, but I just don’t think he was going to age well regardless, and I don’t think Ka’aihue is too different. Using Hafner as an example, the Indians traded Einar Diaz to the Rangers for him. Since Ka’aihue would be more established at the time of his trade, I don’t think the Royals would get swindled like that, but would not be able to expect much more than a bottom of the top 15 type prospect, and even that might be asking a little too much. A reliever prospect and a flyer might be what to expect for him, but sometimes those pan out.

The point is that Hosmer waits for nobody. Sure, if he has a down year in the minors, he probably won’t be up except for maybe a cup of coffee in September. Or if Kila hits .380/.520/.750, Hosmer will have to wait, but the odds of the latter happening are pretty slim and the odds of the former happening are not as slim, but still unlikely. Best case scenario for Royals fans is that Kila hits up to his PECOTA projects, gets traded for a modest haul and the flyer prospect in the deal becomes someone usable, someone like Ben Zobrist who the Rays got for Aubrey Huff a few years back. Still, though, too much talent? It’s a nice problem to have.

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