Ka'aihue awaiting true opportunity
First baseman's path blocked at Major League level
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Two years ago, he was the Kila Monster, crushing home runs all over the Minor Leagues. Kila Ka'aihue was called the Hawaiian Punch, a tribute to his heritage and his power.
The first baseman came into the Royals' Spring Training camp last year as a much-discussed prospect and a long shot to make the Major League roster.
One of those things remains true this year; he's still a long shot to make the roster. But the chatter about him has subsided. That will happen when you drop from 37 home runs to 17, from 100 RBIs to 57 and from a .314 average to .252.
"It was OK, it was average at best. I mean it wasn't a great year," he said about his 2009 season at Triple-A Omaha. "I didn't change anything, I just didn't have the success I had the year before."
Put a footnote on his big numbers from 2008. They were for two teams, primarily for Double-A Northwest Arkansas before he was promoted to Omaha. A full season at Triple-A in '09 was a bigger challenge.
Despite his impressive credentials last spring, Ka'aihue got caught in a big clog of first basemen that included Mike Jacobs, like Ka'aihue a left-handed slugger. And with Billy Butler, Ross Gload, Ryan Shealy and even Mark Teahen hanging around first base, his chances were dim.
"Last year, there were like eight guys, this year there's only one guy," Ka'aihue said. "So this year is a better situation than last year."
Only Butler remains from that busy scrum, but still Ka'aihue's chances are slim. After all, the Royals also have Josh Fields and Willie Bloomquist capable of backing up Butler at first base. And Alex Gordon could move over from third if necessary.
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"We still value Kila very highly," manager Trey Hillman said, "but obviously the dynamics have changed a little bit. That's really what's affected Kila . ... I still consider him one of our top prospects. If there's a need because of lack of performance or unforeseen injury, we know that we've got him, and that's comforting to us."
Ka'aihue brings some pluses with him. In addition to his 17 homers, he banged 27 doubles and drew a Pacific Coast League-high 102 walks in posting a .392 on-base percentage. Baseball America rates his strike-zone discipline as best in the Royals' Minor League system.
"He's got real good plate discipline and sometimes I'd like to see him more aggressive," said Omaha manager Mike Jirschele. "Sometimes he takes pitches that he could do something with, but I know on-base percentage is a big thing for him -- and for everybody. But with the power he has, you'd like to see him put the ball in play more -- with his pitch. There's a fine line there of being too aggressive and not aggressive enough."
The Royals can't see Ka'aihue in any other position other than first base, but he's very much at home there.
"I had a real good defensive year, 130-some games and only four errors," he said. "So hopefully, I've got that in my corner. That's always probably been the strongest point of my game, so hopefully I can hit a little bit more this year and we'll see what happens."
Jirschele sensed that Ka'aihue's spirits were down last spring because the addition of Jacobs really blocked his way.
"He was frustrated a little bit early in the spring, knowing he didn't have a shot at making the big league club after putting up the numbers he did," Jirschele said. "But that's one thing kids have to learn, that stuff's out of your control, and all you can do is go out and do your job. And I think he finally realized that. He settled in and finished up pretty strong."
Ka'aihue's only taste of the Majors came in September 2008 after his 37-homer season earned him a callup. He played in 12 games and got his first big league homer while batting .286. There was no call-up last September.
Although he's starting his ninth pro season, Ka'aihue -- just 25 -- is still young.
"You can't always be young, though, I'm running out of time. I'm kind of at that point," Ka'aihue said.
Dick Kaegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.