Need a First Baseman? Trade for Kila Ka'aihue!

Nathaniel StoltzSenior Analyst IJune 27, 2009

It's June 27, and the major league trade deadline is drawing near.

As always, there are many teams out there looking for offense. The Mets, Rays, Blue Jays, and others are looking for a quality bat to further their playoff chances.

Because of the high trade demand, names like Nick Johnson, Adam Dunn, Matt Holliday, Jason Giambi, and Adrian Gonzalez constantly surface in trade rumors.

However, there is another player out there who is right up there with Johnson, producing better than Holliday or Giambi, and is certainly a quality bat on any team. And he can probably be had for much less than any of the other names flying around.

His name is Kila Ka'aihue, and he plays first base for the Omaha Royals.

You may remember the name, as it's a hard one to forget. The Hawaiian first baseman, the Royals' 15th round draft pick in 2002, merited a minor blip on the prospect radar after a .304/.428/.497 campaign in High-A in 2005. 

Excitement was tempered even then because Ka'aihue's strong performance came at High Desert, one of the five most hitter-friendly minor league ballparks. The naysayers appeared to be correct, as the first baseman struggled mightily in 2006 and 2007.

He entered 2008 as a non-prospect; no one really cares about a 24-year-old Double-A first baseman with only moderate power.

The fact that he only had one good season to show for six years in the minors pretty much showed Ka'aihue to be a player soon to wash out of baseball.

But then a funny thing happened. Kila Ka'aihue became the best hitter in the minor leagues.

In his third try at Double-A, Ka'aihue caught on fire. The big first baseman bashed 26 homers in just 91 games, and only struck out 41 times. That means he'd hit two homers for every three times he struck out: a Bonds-esque ratio.

Ka'aihue started out hot and never cooled off, hitting .314/.463/.629 and earning an August promotion to Triple-A Omaha.

Ka'aihue didn't miss a beat; he hit .316/.439/.640 at the new level with 11 homers in 33 games. He earned a well-deserved promotion to the majors in September and hit .286/.375/.429 in 21 at-bats.

With no good incumbent at the position (Ross Gload had one of the worst 1B seasons in history in 2008) and a proven minor league performer in Ka'aihue, Kansas City GM Dayton Moore did the obvious thing in the offseason.

He traded for mediocre Florida first baseman Mike Jacobs, trapping Ka'aihue in the minors.

It was a really stupid move, and if Moore didn't make it, Kansas City might still be contending right now. It also must be hard on Ka'aihue that he wasn't properly rewarded for his 2008 breakout.

You'd expect Ka'aihue to sulk, and his performance to suffer. A lot of Quad-A guys who can't catch a break eventually have that happen.

Not this one.

Ka'aihue opened the year in a slump, but only by his lofty 2008 standards, as he hit .238/.425/.476 in April. He's been far better in May and June and is hitting .272/.413/.502 on the season.

Trapped in third place on the Royals first base depth chart (behind Jacobs and Billy Butler), the 25-year-old Ka'aihue is a great all-around first baseman.

He hits for good average (.315 in 2008) and power (38 homers last year across the three levels, 11 so far this season).

He also takes a ton of walks (106 last year, 58 already this year), and strikes out infrequently (just 79 last year and 52 this year). Power hitters who hit for good averages and walk more than they strike out are extremely rare commodities.

But that's not the sum of Ka'aihue's skills; he also rates as a well-above-average defender at first base, just a notch below the Mark Teixeira/Adrian Gonzalez class.

The only things Ka'aihue doesn't have are speed and the ability to play other positions besides first.

Then again, very few first basemen have speed, and his speed is average for the position.

On top of all his skills, Ka'aihue's low profile in the Royals organization means he could likely be acquired for relatively little. He is very possibly one of the top 15 first basemen in the game today.

He would be under team control for six years, the first three at a low price, and has little risk of falloff because he's only 25.

So, if these offensive-hungry contending teams want to get better offensively before the deadline, they should pass on the fragile Nick Johnson, the expensive Adam Dunn (in terms of salary) and Adrian Gonzalez (in terms of what it would take to get him), and the underperforming Jason Giambi and Matt Holliday.

They should instead look at the minor league first baseman with the funky name.

They should trade for Kila Ka'aihue.


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