Spring training has finally arrived. While there’s joy in Mudville surrounding that development, eventually the happiness will turn into intrigue as spring is a time for teams to mold the roster that they hope becomes world champions. Every team has questions right now. Some are more important than others, but every team has them, so over the next few weeks of spring training. I’m going to dive into these questions and hopefully help to answer them for the Royals. It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it.
To start, I’m going to look at what I think is one of the bigger questions on the roster.
What in the world are the Royals going to do with Cheslor Cuthbert?
It’s been almost eight years since the Royals signed Cuthbert out of Nicaragua and gave him $1.35 million to become a member of the organization. In that time, he’s been a top-101 prospect once (in 2012, 83rd) and has had a fairly steady ascent through the organization. The results were never where the Royals probably thought they’d be with that big of a bonus, but he hit well enough and defended at third well enough that he kept moving up the ladder.
He finally got his chance to play in 2015 when Mike Moustakas was on the bereavement list a handful of times and showed some acumen, but really had the chance in 2016 after Moustakas tore his ACL. From that point on, Cuthbert was the everyday third baseman. He hit .274/.318/.413 with a .250 TAv at 23-years old. Defensively, he showed fairly slow feet and seemed to hit a wall both offensively and defensively somewhere in August.
All in all, I think it was a fairly successful rookie campaign and one to build on. I’m not sure he’d be seen as a building block for many teams, but he’s definitely a piece I think you can win with provided you actually have other building blocks. Of course, on the Royals, he’s second fiddle to Moustakas, who broke out with a very good 2015 season and looked like he was taking even the next step beyond that in 2016 before his injury.
So with Moose’s return, the team was tasked with determining how to fit Cuthbert in the lineup. He spent some time at second base in winter ball, but that unsurprisingly didn’t go as well as the team had hoped it would. He also apparently worked a little at shortstop during the winter. I’d bet that was an adventure. I thought about writing about Cuthbert’s chances of playing second base, but the answer to the question of if he can do it is far too short for an entire article. So that left the designated hitter role. And that made some sense.
The Royals have long talked about wanting flexibility with the DH. With Moose coming back from injury, Cuthbert could DH the majority of the time as well as play some third and maybe first and give guys full or half days off. There are questions of if his bat is good enough to DH, but he was hitting .294/.331/.446 through the game on August 23rd. I still question if something happened to him in that game or somewhere relatively recently before that game because he was out of the starting lineup the next day after there had just been an off day on August 22nd. He did come into the game later, but hit just .218/.290/.328 the rest of the way and had trouble with throws from third. That’s a story for another day, but I still wonder if there was an injury that led to his rough end of the season.
But anyway, with him penciled in as the DH, the Royals went out and signed Brandon Moss, who figures to get the lion’s share of the work at that position. And even if he doesn’t, I don’t think Cuthbert gets to play over guys like Alex Gordon, Jorge Soler or Eric Hosmer, other than maybe against a very tough lefty for the former and the latter.
So what’s his role on this team? The team is in a bit of a difficult situation with him because he’s out of options, meaning he can’t be sent to the minors without first being designated for assignment. I have a hard time believing he’d clear and remain with the organization given the performance he’s shown in his young career. But where is the playing time coming from?
But you know it’s more complicated than just finding a role for Cuthbert on the 2017 team. With Moustakas likely headed for free agency following the season, the Royals have a real need for Cuthbert in the long-term. But then can they afford to use a roster spot on the weak side of a DH platoon without much positional flexibility? It’s a very difficult position for the Royals, but I guess you could argue it’s a good spot to have too much big league talent to fit on the roster.
The way I see it, the Royals have three options with Cuthbert. I’ll list them in what I think is in order of likelihood.
- They can keep Cuthbert around as Moose insurance, both for his knee early in the year and for if and when he leaves in free agency. There are likely about 250 at bats to be found as DH and resting Moose, especially early. Maybe he can even play a few innings at second base when Chris Young is pitching or something. This allows the Royals to keep him for 2018-2021 when they’ll likely need a third baseman.
- They can trade Cuthbert. I believe there’s value in a guy like him. He’s 24 and showed he can hang at the big league level. Again, if there was an injury involved in his end-of-season swoon, that should theoretically make him more valuable. No, the Royals aren’t going to get back an ace for him, but one trade that might make some sense now is sending him to Atlanta in exchange for the now blocked Jace Peterson. I’m not sure Peterson actually is an upgrade over Whit Merrifield or Christian Colon, but he’s athletic and can work a walk and might be able to factor in the center field discussion in 2018. Maybe that’s not the deal, but I think a trade could be had for Cuthbert that would be beneficial to all parties.
- They can try to designate him for assignment and hope he clears. I’ve been over this, but I just can’t imagine this is the route they take.
The funny thing about roster questions is they have a way of working themselves out, whether some other team loses their third baseman early in the spring and needs a replacement or the Royals find a spot on their roster. But right now, Cuthbert’s roster spot and role on it are very much up in the air.