There was a time in Royals history when “The Third Base Tree” was more talked about than the actual team. The Royals were struggling and so was Mike Moustakas, and sometimes when things aren’t going great, Ned Yost gets a little short with reporters and ultimately gave a great quote about going to the third base tree to pick another third baseman. That imagery brought about memes and jokes and will likely not be forgotten by the Royals fans for quite some time. And, you know, Yost was right. There isn’t a third base tree. That’s a ridiculous notion. People don’t grow on trees.
But what if there is a third base tree?
But the Royals have some third baseman now. It’s science.
Okay, so maybe there isn’t really a tree, but the state of third base in the Royals organization has changed drastically over the last three years or so since talk of the tree began. Moustakas became a legitimate All-Star third baseman. He combined his above average defense with a bat that actually fit in almost any spot in the lineup and was a fixture. If you had told anyone two years ago that a season-ending injury to Moose would seem like a season killer, they’d have laughed at you. But this year, when Moustakas went down with the torn ACL, people rightfully wondered if the Royals could persevere.
Enter Cheslor Cuthbert. The Royals signed him as an amateur free agent in 2009 when he was just 16 years old. With most of these international investments, you tend to hope that they can become something special, but they’re also often 16, which makes projecting their development more difficult than a college junior in the draft. But there’s the upside, and when the Royals signed Cuthbert, I remember hearing Adrian Beltre upside. The problem was that the power didn’t really seem to come along in the minors for him. Neither did the average. He walked a little bit and he didn’t strike out much, so there was some hope, but the shine of being a 16-year old signed by the Royals wore off quickly with Cuthbert.
In 2013, they drafted shortstop Hunter Dozier, who they expected would have to move to third, and it seemed Cuthbert was destined to become an organizational guy who could maybe help out at the big leagues at some point. A .353 slugging percentage in A-ball and a .395 slugging percentage in Double-A sort of made that clear. But then the Royals needed someone last season when Moustakas was on various bereavement leaves for his ailing mother and Cuthbert was there. In all, he played 19 games, hit .217/.280/.370 and, while the numbers were lacking, he definitely looked the part. He wasn’t the defender Moose was, but he made the plays and he really seemed to have more sock in his bat than most expected.
This season, he was a monster at Triple-A, hitting .333/.402/.624 with seven home runs in 24 games. He was fantastic. When Moustakas broke his thumb, Cuthbert was up and hit .255/.269/.373 in his first 52 plate appearances. He looked more like the guy who struggled in the minors than the guy who looked like he belonged in the big leagues. When Moustakas was activated, he was sent down and we figured it might be awhile before we saw him again. Fate intervened, though, and Cuthbert was back a few days later. Since then, he’s been the guy. And maybe that’s what he needed.
Since knowing he would likely be playing third for the rest of the season, he’s hit .282/.325/.464 with six homers and 15 RBIs. That’s a pace of 33 HR and 82 RBI. He’s shown better plate discipline this time around (though he’s struck out a ton) and been solid in the field. The defensive metrics don’t like him as much as they did last year, but he’s been good. I wasn’t convinced that Cuthbert was going to be able to hold the third base job the whole season with the year Dozier has been having, but he turned it on and now I’m convinced he can play third for a long time for the Royals.
On the whole, Cuthbert is hitting .273/.308/.435 with a .258 TAv and has been worth 0.4 WARP. To put in perspective what he’s been able to do this year, let’s take a look at his PECOTA projections for the season.
He’s nearing the plate appearances for his 90th percentile projection and has already nearly doubled the home run projection, leading his ISO to be much higher than projected as well. PECOTA pegged him for more walks, which helped to raise his TAv, but he seems to be coming around in the patience department as well lately. Even if he just performs at his 70th percentile projection from the preseason, he’d likely get about 340 more plate appearances, which would give him roughly a .265/.310/.410 line with 14 home runs in his first full big league season. Given what he’s done so far, I’d bet on better.
Just for fun, if he hits to his 90th percentile projection the rest of year, he’d finish with around a .280/.330/.435 line with 14 home runs on the season. Given what I’ve seen from the power, I’d bet on more long balls, but regardless, that’s a respectable line.
Last season, I compared Cuthbert a bit to Joe Randa. I just didn’t see the power coming, so I thought that one made a fair amount of sense, but I think Cuthbert has more pop than Randa. It’s easy to forget he’s just 23 since he’s been in the organization for such a long time. I think he’s the real deal.
So now here’s the question: How do the Royals maximize on this for the long run? They’ve got Moustakas under contract in 2017 for a very reasonable $8.7 million, but then he’s a free agent. Cuthbert is under team control through at least 2021 and maybe longer depending on how the Royals handle the situation next year.
I’m not saying this is the be-all, end-all solution, but I wonder if the Royals wouldn’t be best served to shop Moustakas this offseason and roll into 2017 with Cuthbert playing every day. Obviously they have the rest of this season to evaluate Cuthbert, so they don’t need to make that decision today, but it’s something to certainly think about.
Trading Moustakas would be risky. He’s the known commodity and a fan favorite. He also helps to balance out the Royals lineup with another lefty bat, which I think they’ve been missing with both he and Alex Gordon out. But if he would leave as a free agent following the season anyway and they already have Cuthbert in the big leagues showing he can play, it might make a lot of sense. It’s a different sort of trade, though, because I would think they’d target a starting pitcher, which means they’d have to find a team that wants to content in 2017 who needs a third baseman and who has a starting pitcher they can deal. That may be tricky to find. A team could just as easily not deal a starter and sign Martin Prado or David Freese. Neither is Moustakas, but they both provide plenty of value.
They could also put all their eggs in the Moustakas basket and re-sign him long-term and shop Cuthbert as an alternate solution. I think there’s potentially more risk in that given Moose’s relatively short track record of success and, let’s be honest, his body type. Plus, he’s coming off a major surgery, so I’m not sure you’d want to get him locked up right away and then you run the risk of having traded your third baseman of the future and losing the guy you hoped to keep in his place.
Or, of course, they could keep both and use them to rotate through that DH spot that will likely be vacated. If Cuthbert’s bat is for real, that would be just fine and Moustakas would likely benefit from some half days off. Maybe Cuthbert could put in some extra work at first and even in the outfield, which has been mentioned in the past (though he is SLOW), in order to give the outfielders a chance to DH periodically. Given the Royals track record, I’d bet on that being what they do.
Cuthbert’s success and adjustments to big league pitching have been a big reason why the Royals have stayed afloat amidst all their injuries. He’s kind of been the forgotten player with all that’s surrounded Whit Merrifield’s great start and Paulo Orlando’s insanely high batting average along with Salvador Perez and Eric Hosmer having great seasons so far. His success also gives the Royals something to think about this offseason. It should be interesting. That third base tree is really coming in nice this year.