Although the Oakland A's were unable to make any trades involving big name players this season, they have made a number of lower profile swaps. The latest one was announced on Tuesday, as the A's traded minor league right-hander Ethan Hollingsworth for first-baseman/DH Kila Ka'aihue. Ka'aihue had been designated for assignment by the Royals a few days prior to the trade.
This is the second trade between the A's and Royals since the end of the 2010 campaign. During this last off-season Oakland acquired outfielder David DeJesus from Kansas City for right-hander Vin Mazzaro and minor league left-hander Justin Marks. Thus far that trade has yielded very little for either team. It doesn't seem likely that this most recent deal will join the annals of past memorable Oakland-Kansas City swaps that netted the A's Johnny Damon and Jermaine Dye in the early 2000s.
The Trade Pieces
For the past several years, Ka'aihue has topped the lists for many stats-oriented prospect watchers in terms of being an underrated offensive force. The former University of Nebraska star made a name for himself in 2008 after several nondescript years in the Kansas City chain when he posted a .314/.456/.628 line between Double-A and Triple-A. Ka'aihue also hit .286 with an 804 OPS in a 12-game MLB call-up stint that season.
Unfortunately for the native of Hawaii, Ka'aihue was blocked in the KC system that year behind Billy Butler and he returned to Triple-A for the 2009 season. He posted a somewhat disappointing line of .252/.392/.433 and saw no major league time. Ka'aihue recovered in 2010 to hit .319/.463/.598 at Triple-A and got his first extended taste of the major leagues. In 52 games, he drew 24 walks, but batted only .217 with eight homers and a 702 OPS.
In 2011, Ka'aihue got another chance with Kansas City, but he once again was unable to capitalize. In 82 at-bats over 23 games, he hit only .195 with a 612 OPS. Back with Triple-A Omaha, Ka'aihue also posted disappointing numbers, hitting .272/.379/.433 in 95 games. With Eric Hosmer and Butler firmly entrenched in front of him at first base and DH in KC, Ka'aihue was designated for assignment by the Royals in September.
Hollingsworth recently completed his first season as a member of the Oakland A's chain. He was acquired just before the start of spring training from the Colorado Rockies organization for right-hander Clayton Mortensen. Hollingsworth, a fourth-round pick of the Rockies in 2008, spent most of the 2011 season with the Double-A Midland Rockhounds. He was a mid-season All-Star, although he missed the All-Star game with a hip injury that kept him off the mound for six weeks during the middle of the season.
When Hollingsworth was on the mound, he proved to be a strike-thrower and a groundball pitcher. In 94.2 innings for Midland, he struck-out only 66, but he walked only 23 and induced one-and-a-half groundouts for every flyout. Hollingsworth made two late season starts for the Triple-A Sacramento River Cats and was a part of their post-season staff. He was slated to go to the Arizona Fall League as part of the A's contingent. It isn't clear whether the Royals will send him to Arizona.
Hollingsworth is a finesse right-hander who relies on location and pitch selection to succeed. His best pitch is his change-up and he also has a solid sinking fastball, as well as above-average command. The 24-year-old will need to be protected in the upcoming Rule 5 draft.
From the Royals' perspective, this trade makes a lot of sense. They clearly didn't have a need for Ka'aihue any longer with Hosmer and Butler on-board. While Hollingsworth is no sure thing to have a major league career, he is the kind of command, groundball pitcher who can have some level of success in the backend of a major league rotation or in the middle of a bullpen if things break the right way for him. Given that the Royals are always need in of pitching, adding an arm like Hollingsworth can only help them.
From the A's perspective, this trade is a bit puzzling. While Ka'aihue has a track record of being a hitter with the power potential and patience the A's crave, he doesn't bring the organization anything that the team's other three 40-man roster first basemen (Brandon Allen, Daric Barton and Chris Carter) don't bring. In fact, his acquisition makes what was already shaping up to be a very crowded first base/DH situation next spring even more complicated.
In addition, the A's have now thinned what was already a very small crop of Triple-A level starting pitchers in their minor league system. With Brett Anderson out for much of (if not all of) next season and with Rich Harden a free agent, the A's will be in search of a fifth starter. With the exception of Graham Godfrey, the A's currently have no Triple-A starting pitchers on their 40-man roster with major league experience. On top of that, right-hander Travis Banwart and left-hander Carlos Hernandez are the only starting pitching prospects in their system who have sustained any success at the Triple-A level. While Hollingsworth was thin on experience at Triple-A, he was the A's best Double-A starter last year (with the exception of first-round pick Sonny Gray, who only pitched a handful of innings) and looked the most ready to make the jump to Triple-A.
What is most puzzling about this trade, however, is the message that it sends about the A's current three candidates for the first base/DH job for 2012. Allen, Barton and Carter are all coming off of what can be termed disappointing seasons, but all three are also former highly regarded prospects who are younger than Ka'aihue.
Allen was acquired by the A's in a deadline deal with Arizona this July 31st and he has served as the A's everyday first baseman for much of the time since then. He got off to a terrific start for the A's, posting a 1052 OPS during his first two weeks with the team and capturing everyone's imagination with two mammoth homeruns at Yankee Stadium. Since that time, however, Allen's production has cratered. He is batting only .125 in September with a 373 OPS and no homeruns. On the plus side, he has fielded his position well at first. He will be 26 at the start of next season.
Allen has a longer and more consistent minor league track record of success than Ka'aihue and is a better defender. He also shown the ability to play left field, something Ka'aihue, Barton and Carter have not demonstrated. A's manager Bob Melvin knew Allen from his time in the Arizona Diamondbacks' front office and is likely as aware of what Allen is capable of as anyone in the A's organization.
Many predicted big things for Barton in 2011 after he had a breakout 2010 campaign that saw him post a .393 OBP and develop into one of the top defensive first basemen in baseball. That big season never materialized for Barton, however. He injured his shoulder early in the season and played through the injury, but never got on-track, batting only .212 with a 592 OPS in 236 at-bats before being sent down to Triple-A. Once at Triple-A, he continued to experience problems with the shoulder and he eventually had surgery to repair the problem.
Since Barton joined the organization in 2004, there have been whispers about his work ethic (or lack thereof) in the training and weight rooms. There were numerous reports when Barton's shoulder injury was revealed that he didn't rehab the initial injury with as much vigor as the team would have liked. Nonetheless, he is one year removed from a season in which he posted a 4.9 WAR (wins-over-replacement player) and he will be only 25 at the start of the 2012 season. To write him off as a lost cause at this point would seem premature.
At this point, Carter must be wondering what he has to do to get a legitimate chance to play everyday at the major league level with the A's. The slugging right-handed hitter had a disappointing major league debut with the A's last year – failing to collect a hit in his first 33 at-bats – but he finished last September on a strong note. Despite that, Carter was given little chance this spring to win a spot on the major league roster. A thumb injury robbed him of the first half of the season and he was still working off the rust when he was recalled for a short time by the A's in June.
It took Carter some time to get going this season, but by the end of the year, he was back to hitting like the Carter the A's have seen the past four seasons. Carter hit nine homers over the final 34 regular season games for Triple-A Sacramento and went on to hit four more during the post-season. He finished his shortened Triple-A season with an 897 OPS.
Since being recalled to Oakland after the conclusion of the Triple-A season, Carter has seen only scattered playing time. While it is certainly true that he has failed to force the A's hand by swinging a hot bat out of the gate, Carter has also had few opportunities to develop a regular rhythm at the major league level. Throughout his career, Carter has been a hitter who has needed a few months at a level before he starts dominating it. While both Barton and Allen have been afforded opportunities to play everyday over the course of several months despite struggling (or an entire season, in the case of Barton in 2008), Carter has been given no such leeway. In fact, he has the fewest career major league at-bats of any of the four players by a significant amount. Carter is the youngest of the group, as he won't turn 25 until December. He also has the most consistent track record of hitting for power at every level he has played at. Carter is also the poorest defender of the group, which is something that has clearly been a sticking point for the A's over the past two seasons.
It seems clear that the A's will not be able to carry all four first baseman into spring training on their 40-man roster, unless the A's decide not to sign any veteran players for the DH position. Assuming they do bring a veteran DH as they normally do, there wouldn't be enough spring at-bats at first base to give Carter, Barton, Allen or Ka'aihue a clear evaluation, so a decision will have to be made before the team arrives in Phoenix.