The Royals have one of those “good problems” at first base right now.
Billy Butler is extended with club-friendly options, and at age 24 could be a batting leader in the American League for the duration of his contract.
Kila Ka’aihue hopes to build off a strong September, and so far in spring training he has two homers and if nothing else will get a shot to hit everyday.
Eric Hosmer has been the star of spring through the first batch of games and should be looking for a 3-5 month lease in Omaha if he hasn’t lined it up already.
And then there’s Clint Robinson, the lowest on the totem pole, but the second oldest of the group. All he’s done is win the Triple Crown in the Texas League, get added to the 40 man roster, and through 10 at bats (standard sample size disclaimers apply) has four hits and five RBIs.
These four, none of which have turned 27 years old, can only occupy two spots in the lineup. Even if somehow the Royals got creative and moved Hosmer to the outfield, Robinson’s still the odd man out.
That’s the benefit of a stacked farm system such as the one the Royals enjoy right now. they have too much talent to fit into a lineup. Sure, Robinson was likely to see Kansas City only in the event of injuries to one or both of Butler and Ka’aihue, but he’s still in the mix. He’s just last in the pecking order.
The solution to this problem seem limited – Butler’s extension guarantees him a spot unless a super trade package comes up. Ka’aihue’s ready for everyday duty, and Hosmer’s a potential MVP (I’m going to keep referring to him this way so that it sticks. Other than speed, I see no limit to his potential.)
So, sorry Clint, you’re on the block.
Now, the difficulty is how to value a player like Robinson. He’s not very athletic, and as a former 25th round pick out of Troy, he has never been highly touted. He’s hit at every level, but he’s also been older at every level he’s been at. Plenty of players younger than him and with more hype behind them have reached the majors and performed. Robinson’s yet to reach Triple A (though that’s where he’s headed in 2011). Still, he owns a career .910 OPS in the minors with .237 isolated power. Even if he hasn’t been pushed as a prospect, he’s performed, and that counts for something.
The Royals are probably more likely to look for a return that fills a hole in their system rather than a fringe major leaguer. They have some flexibility in that they can look for a long-term or short-term fix for that spot. I’d see them going after a right-handed pitcher or an outfielder.
Baseball America ranked Robinson 28th among Royals prospects. Grading on a curve, I think a team with nobody at first base in their top 30 could be willing to give up a prospect around 15-25. As I said in his prospect profile in our own rankings, if there’s no Ka’aihue or Hosmer in the organization, I think people rank Robinson a bit higher despite his age. Being fourth on a depth chart with two spots ultimately damages what impact you might have.
Using Baseball America’s Prospect Handbook as a source, I figured on just a few teams with potential openings for a first baseman. These are teams that have no first baseman in their top 30 prospects and no obvious long-term fit (or who could stash Robinson in Triple A in 2011):
- Chicago Cubs: The Cubs just brought in Carlos Pena to replace Derrek Lee but otherwise have no strong first base prospect in the system. They may try to move Tyler Colvin there, but he’s primarily an outfielder at this point. As far as outfielders, their 23rd listed prospect is Reggie Golden, a 5’10″ 19-year-old right-handed batter out of the 2nd round in 2010′s draft. He’s a longshot as a trade target, but he his bat speed suggests he could have big power in his career. They also have Aaron Kurcz and Kyle Smith, both right-handed pitchers. Smit has a fastball around 92-97 and a tight slider. Kurcz is a 20-year-old who has a 95 mph fastball and a biting curveball. He struck out 48 batters in 27 innings in rookie and short season leagues in 2010.
- Cleveland Indians: Matt LaPorta is the guy at first right now, but he hasn’t been very impressive since arriving from Milwaukee. If the Indians want a Triple A insurance policy, they might consider giving up Luigi Rodriguez, who, along with an awesome name, is a speedy 18-year-old second baseman turned centerfielder. In 63 games in the Dominican Summer League, Rodriguez put up a .301/.403/.461 line with ten triples and 31 steals in 40 attempts. As far as pitchers, they might give up Hector Rondon who is promising, but just underwent Tommy John surgery. He’s out for 2011, but would be 24 in 2012. He last pitched in Triple A, so it would depend on his recovery. He can sit around the low 90s but has hit 96 mph. He doesn’t have a great secondary repertoire, but he has almost a 5/1 K/BB ratio in 577 minor league innings.
- Los Angeles Dodgers: The Dodgers also have nobody in line for first base, and while they could chase a free agent, they might be interested in getting some minor league depth behind James Loney. You may have heard that Loney and the Dodgers had difficulty coming to an agreement on his salary for 2011, so they may even let him loose next year, making it important to get someone behind him in case the free agents sign elsewhere. My target in their system is Ralston Cash, who ranks as LA’s 20th prospect and at 6’3″ 207 fits the kind of frame the Royals like in a starting pitcher. He’ll turn 20 in August and is a low-90s right-hander who can hit 94 and has an average slurvy curveball and changeup. BA suggests he could be a #3 starter down the line.
- Milwaukee Brewers: After trades gutted their system, the Brewers have the weakest farm system in baseball. Baseball America does at least rank two first basemen in their system, Hunter Morris and Cody Hawn. Morris, however, is being converted to third base, and Hawn hasn’t even played A level ball yet. The problem with that? Prince Fielder is likely to be traded at the deadline if the Brewers are out of the playoff race or he’ll walk as a free agent at the end of the year. They otherwise have nobody behind him. Perhaps another deal with the Royals would be a possibility. And hey, let’s aim high. The Royals already took four of the Brewers best young players in the Zack Greinke trade, and while the cupboard is mostly bare, I wouldn’t mind them going after Kyle Heckathorn. Maybe it’s a high price to ask for, but as the Brewers 11th-ranked prospect, he’s perhaps in play. Heckathorn is a high-90s pitcher from the right side and at 6’6″ could be a starter or reliever. Scouts describe him as a bulldog.
The Royal may opt to sit on the situation and keep Robinson in Triple A. There’s nothing wrong with depth, and if they want to be patient and wait for Murray Watts or Henry Moreno to step in as another option in the system at first, that’d be okay too.
While Eric Hosmer could probably bat fourth on opening day, the service time issues might postpone his arrival in Kansas City until 2012. That’s just how it is. If an injury popped up that required a callup, the Royals would be more likely to go with Robinson as a 2011 fill-in in an emergency since his service clock is a much smaller consideration. If there’s no deal out there, there’s no reason to force one.
If they wanted to move the Alabama Hammer, they do have options.