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Barton, Ka'aihue Could Be Cheap 1B Options

Editor's note: Please welcome Satchel Price to Beyond the Box Score. He comes to us having written for MLB Daily Dish. He'll be contributing regularly, so please make him feel at home. -TBB

Note: This piece was written before the trade sending Brett Wallace to Toronto for Michael Taylor. It's less likely that the Athletics deal Barton now that they dealt away arguably the best 1B/DH prospect in their organization, but they do still need to find playing time for Barton, Fox, Carter and possibly Doolittle, and ideally Fox wouldn't be playing third base everyday.

Even in these depressed economic times, we’ve still seen solid contributors, but not star players, get pretty significant money on the free agent market. When guys like Placido Polanco and Brandon Lyon are getting three-year deals worth $5-6M guaranteed per season, then it becomes quite clear that there are still numerous opportunities for teams to find potential bargains, especially on the trade market.

While neither of the players that I’m about to mention has been openly discussed as being available in trade, presumably each of them could be pried for a reasonable price given that they don’t have established roles on their MLB teams and have competition for their positions going forward. Both players still have trade value, and each one was once a highly regarded prospect and has shown the ability to excel in the upper levels of the minors and/or in the majors. Given the circumstances, it seems likely that they could be dealt for the right price.

We’ll start the off with first baseman Daric Barton of the Oakland Athletics. A top prospect since being a part of the package that landed Mark Mulder in St. Louis, Barton hasn't quite taken hold of the first base job in Oakland as expected. He’s flashed the ability to get on base at a high clip with good gap power and played above-average defense, but he did not impress during an extended stint with the club in 2008.

Barton's biggest flaw has always been a lack of power for someone on his side of the defensive spectrum, but he makes up for it with excellent contact skills and a very developed, patient approach at the plate. Barton, 24, was given the everyday job in Oakland in 2008 and struggled, posting a .226/.327/.348 line (85 wRC+) in 523 plate appearances, but he still posted a strong walk rate, and was pretty unlucky with balls in play and HR/FB rate. He rebounded well in 2009, with a .261/.386/.458 line in 313 plate appearances with AAA Sacramento, and an improved .269/.372/.413 line (112 wRC+) in 192 plate appearances in Oakland.

While it would be unsurprising to see Barton as Oakland’s first baseman on Opening Day 2010, it seems clear that Oakland doesn’t expect him to hold that position long term, considering that top prospects Brett Wallace, Chris Carter and Sean Doolittle all project as first baseman. Currently, Wallace is working at third base, and the latter two are attempting to make transitions to the outfield. Most scouts don’t believe that Wallace and Carter are capable of being adequate defensively anywhere but first base and their bats are essentially ready for the majors, so presumably each will get playing time in Oakland in 2010. Wallace and Carter could play their current respective positions of third base and left field, with Barton at first base, but each would be major liabilities defensively and Oakland likely doesn’t want consistently poor defense behind a young pitching staff.

Considering that the Athletics need to find playing time for Barton, Wallace, Carter, the recently added Jake Fox, and outfielders Ryan Sweeney, Scott Hairston, Aaron Cunningham, Rajai Davis and Travis Buck between six positions (1B, 3B, OF, DH), I would inquire on Barton if I were a GM and I had a hole at first base. I'm not saying that the A's should shop Barton because he'll never be helpful to them, but it's not clear how he fits into their long-term plans and he's a guy that they would presumably consider moving. If Oakland is willing to deal Barton in order to get playing time for more highly touted young players (and they're not exactly a contender in 2010 anyway) Barton could be a great fit for a bunch of teams. He's not the 40-homer masher that you ideally want at first base, but he could definitely be a nice addition for someone with a hole there.

While Barton is likely to be an everyday first baseman in 2010, Kila Ka’aihue of the Kansas City Royals can’t say the same thing for himself. Ka’aihue is a first baseman from a mold similar to that of Barton: very good on-base skills, decent but unimpressive gap power, little value on the basepaths, and solid defense at first base.

Ka’aihue’s best skill is his approach as a hitter, he’s exceptionally patient with a consistent track record of huge walk rates. It seemed that he was in line to share first base and designated hitter duties with Billy Butler for the 2009 season, but GM Dayton Moore preferred to trade for Mike Jacobs from the Florida Marlins, a first baseman with much more power than Ka’aihue but essentially no other skills otherwise. Moore obviously couldn’t help but be tantalized by Jacobs’ combination of poor defense and low walk rates, the same traits that landed Jose Guillen, Willie Bloomquist, Yuniesky Betancourt, Miguel Olivo and others on the same roster of misfits.

While giving up Leo Nunez and about $3M in salary to land Jacobs was a bad move in its own right, blocking Ka’aihue made the move that much worse. In 2008, the season before the Jacobs deal, Ka'aihue posted a .314/.463/.624 line in 376 PA in AA, with a 21.8% walk rate, and a .316/.439/.640 line in 114 PA in AAA, with a 17.4% walk rate.

Clearly, Ka'aihue was ready to get at-bats at the major league level, but the Royals chose to overpay in talent for a power threat that doesn't get on base and can't play defense. Jacobs would post a .305 wOBA and a -0.7 WAR on the season, reinforcing the poor evaluations within Kansas City's front office.

Turning 26 in March, Ka'aihue definitely deserves an everyday shot somewhere, whether that's with the Royals or somewhere else, like Cleveland, San Francisco, Atlanta, or New York. While he wasn't able to repeat his impressive power production and contact ability in AAA in 2009, he still had an impressive eye, with 102 walk and 85 strikeouts in 555 PA, a very impressive 18.8% walk rate and a decent ISO of .181, although that’s far below the .300+ ISO’s he previously posted in the upper minors.

Considering that the Royals essentially have two MLB-ready guys that are only playable at first base or designated hitter, Ka’aihue and Billy Butler, along with two other talented hitters without a clear position in Josh Fields and Alberto Callaspo (assuming that Getz is the everyday second baseman), it seems that Ka’aihue would be readily available if Moore received the right offer.

Numerous reports have already come out regarded potential trades for Callaspo, and it seems clear that the team is prepared to give everyday at-bats to Butler, Getz and possibly Fields, which doesn’t leave much room for Ka’aihue considering his lack of defensive versatility.

Each of these two first baseman haven’t gotten as much hype as other prospects who had more power potential, the ultimate trait of first base prospects, but they have some solid upside and logically should be relatively available. Considering that Adam LaRoche is reportedly looking for a three-year deal worth $31.5M and is essentially a good player for one half of each season, Nick Johnson is still Nick Johnson and that means injury questions galore, and the other options, guys like Jacobs, Ryan Garko, Hank Blalock, Garrett Atkins, Russell Branyan and Chad Tracy, are just flat-out underwhelming, it seems like looking at cheaper alternatives like Barton and Ka’aihue should be pretty popular this winter.