Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Rick Ankiel Hurt, Royals Call Up Kila Ka'aihue

Royals center fielder Rick Ankiel left their contest back on May 2nd with a strained quadriceps muscle and is now headed for the disabled list. The move will be retroactive to May 2nd, which means Ankiel could return as early as the 17th of this month. In the meantime, Mitch Maier should get most of the playing time.

This actually makes me, and probably a lot of Royals fans, pretty happy. While Ankiel has hit predictably poorly, with an OPS of .695 while striking out in an unfathomable 35% of his at-bats, Maier has rotted on the bench. The same Maier who has spent three seasons as a quality player at AAA Omaha, and who has done little to show he is any worse with the bat than Ankiel.

Indeed Maier has actually performed quite a bit better than Ankiel in his 45 at-bats, posting a .752 OPS. Of course, the small sample size is worth noting. While Maier is probably better suited defensively to a corner outfield position, he Royals have been playing him in center, here he is probably a bit of a downgrade from Ankiel.

Worst case scenario, this should be a net-neutral move for the Royals, and has the potential to be a solid positive as Maier should be the better hitter. To say nothing of being younger, and controllable (RE: Cheaper) than Ankiel. With any luck at all Maier can put together a strong stretch of baseball in Ankiel's absence and at least force Manager Trey Hillman to consider keeping him as a regular.

Ankiel's place on the roster is being taken by first base prospect Kila Ka'aihue. Like Maier, Ka'aihue is another player who has proven himself for a couple years at AAA but hasn't been given a chance at the Major League level. With Billy Butler at first base and Jose Guillen, at least for now, at designated hitter, it doesn't appear likely that Ka'aihue will get many at-bats, or even a chance to play. All of which begs the question, why call him up in the first place?

Ka'aihue is not necessarily your prototypical first base slugger - he doesn't hit a ton of homeruns (just 28 in 694 AAA at-bats), but he draws a TON of walks, having taken more free passes than strikeouts each of the past two years. He's also shown the ability to hit over .300 the past few seasons and if he can combine the ability to hit for solid average with his ability to draw walks, he could cut out a Nick Johnson-like career.

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