Eric Mack
Wednesday April 20th, 2011

Royals first baseman Kila Ka'aihue has waited an entire career for this opportunity to be an everyday player in the major leagues. But what has taken him his 27 years to build, could be ruined in a matter of a few short weeks. That is how it is in this what-have-you-done-for-me-lately business.

As we finish up the third week of baseball, Ka'aihue's leash will get shorter and shorter as elite slugging prospect Eric Hosmer is mashing away in Triple A.

It wasn't going to matter what Ka'aihue did -- not with Hosmer just a step away -- but Ka'aihue's inability to find a hot streak is going to dramatically shorten his tenure as the Royals' everyday first baseman.

Hosmer, 21, the third overall pick in the June 2008 first-year player draft, is the Royals future at the position. Billy Butler, who just turned 25 a few days ago, is locked in as the DH long-term. That leaves no margin of error for the slugging Hawaiian, who cannot move to the outfield.

"[Ka'aihue] had a great spring, and kept it going all spring," manager Ned Yost said. "Some players are a bit streaky, and I haven't been around him long enough to know if he's one of those types of guys.

"You have to give him some time. He's still a young big league player, and it takes guys time to make adjustments and get things figured out."

Ka'aihue held off Hosmer in spring training by hitting .397 with seven homers and 20 RBIs in 58 at-bats. That made it clear Ka'aihue was going to be the team's everyday first baseman out of camp.

But with Ka'aihue batting .151 through 51 at-bats in Kansas City and Hosmer smacking the ball to the tune of .400/.464/.520 with a homer, eight RBIs and nine runs through 50 Triple-A at-bats, the only thing clear now is Hosmer will be stealing Ka'aihue's job in Kansas City this season.

Maybe it's June 1. Maybe it's tomorrow.

If it is tomorrow, it wouldn't come as a surprise. The Royals have shown a lot more urgency with their top prospects this year, converting Aaron Crow (the Royals No. 1 pick in 2009, one year after Hosmer) into a reliever and throwing him -- successfully, mind you -- right into the big league fire. The 24-year-old Crow has not allowed a run in 10 1/3 innings of relief for the Royals.

It's a bit odd that an organization that had vowed to keep their prospects at each level for a full season would take a starting-pitcher prospect and make him a middle reliever without ever seeing him throw a pitch in Triple A. But the Royals are setting up their best chips to grow something significant in Kansas City again. All they're missing now is a feared middle-of-the-order slugger.

Despite Ka'aihue's slump, Yost didn't seem worried.

"It's early," Yost said. "Guys go through slow starts and they work their way out of it. [Ka'aihue's] been out here early every day working in batting practice."

Ka'aihue knows his window of opportunity is brief, especially because he is playing ahead of the prospect Baseball America named the "prep player closest to the major leagues" when he was drafted less than three years ago.

Close is an understatement now. Hosmer, owned in just over 1/5 of fantasy leagues currently, appears to be thisclose to the majors.

Mike Moustakas, 22, was supposed to be the Royals' fast riser this spring. Heck, there was even a chance the first-round pick (second overall) of the 2007 first-year player draft could have started on Opening Day.

But Moustakas is going through some Ka'aihue-like growing pains as an Omaha Storm Chaser, unlike Hosmer. Moustakas is hitting just .229 (11 for 48) with a .275 OBP and .313 SLUG. He does have a seven-game hitting streak, but it is one of those "one-hit wonder" stretches where his average is .280 (7 for 25).

Moustakas is coming off a breakthrough 2010 campaign where he combined to go .322-36-124-94-2 (.369-.630) in 484 at-bats between Double A and Triple A. But it will take an extended hot streak for Moustakas to become a cornerstone of the Royals' infield this season.

When the Royals' prospects -- Moustakas, Hosmer and Double-A catcher Wil Myers -- do make it to the majors, they, combined with current major leaguers Butler and a still-improving Alex Gordon, have the makings of a potential early '90s Braves-like rebuild.

It just will take some influx of pitching, which is where the likes of John Lamb, Mike Montgomery, Danny Duffy and Chris Dwyer will eventually come in. Yeah, picking at the top of the first round has done the Royals good. It is no wonder they were ranked the No. 1 farm system by Baseball America this March.

1. OF Desmond Jennings, Rays

After spotlighting Jennings last week, he homered and overtook the title as the most-owned minor leaguer.

2. OF Bryce Harper, Nationals

This is a slow start for him, but seeing him impact fantasy leagues this season was a pipe dream anyway. He is shouldn't be owned in yearly leagues, but his ownership suggests he is.

3. 3B Mike Moustakas, Royals

No one could have guessed that Hosmer would be putting up better numbers this season.

4. C Jesus Montero, Yankees

Clearly, he is too good for Triple A, but he needs to draw some walks and the Yankees need to decide the futures of Jorge Posada and/or Russell Martin.

5. 2B Dustin Ackley, Mariners

This start isn't great, but it is a lot more promising than the one he had a year ago.

6. SP Mike Minor, Braves

Brandon Beachy's promising start Tuesday night gives Minor more time to work on things. He better look out below, though.

7. 1B Eric Hosmer, Royals

It will take longer for the Royals to have confidence in him, but Ka'aihue's struggles certainly help.

8. OF Mike Trout, Angels

This great start has many of us dreaming of the possibilities this summer for the 2010 minor league player of the year.

9. SP Julio Teheran, Braves

Beachy and Minor are only the precursors to the real prospect prize, Teheran. His innings figure to be more limited this year, though.

10. 3B Lonnie Chisenhall, Indians

He was impressive in spring training, so a June 1 call-up appears likely for this potential impact third baseman. The hole is wide open there in Cleveland.

Eric Mack chimes in on potential impact rookies and prospects every Wednesday at SI.com. If you have a prospect you want to see highlighted, let him know. As always, you can mock him, rip him and (doubtful) praise him before asking him for fantasy advice on Twitter @EricMackFantasy. Hit him up. He honestly has nothing better to do with his free time.

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