If it feels like Cheslor Cuthbert has been around forever, it's because that's the way a lot of articles about him begin these days. There are fewer with each year as Cuthbert's stock has fallen since an apparent peak in 2012 when he found himself at the back end of several top 100 prospect lists.
In the composite Royals top prospect list combining several respected prospect lists from various sources, Cuthbert ranked as the ninth-best prospect in the farm system. Dave Hill at Kings of Kauffman was highest on Cuthbert, ranking him seventh. Cuthbert's lowest ranking, not including being left off the top ten lists at Baseball Prospectus and in the Prospect Digest, was at FanGraphs, where he was the 22nd overall. The conclusion on many of the lists is similar - Cheslor Cuthbert isn't likely to be an every day player in the big leagues, but he could be an option off the bench.
Enter the KATOH rankings of Royals' prospects, which was released earlier this week. KATOH is a prospect projection system developed by Chris Mitchell that, unlike traditional scouting based lists that eschew (at least to some extent) statistics, KATOH looks only at a player's minor league statistical output. By learning what minor league statistics best predict success at the major league level, the system applies transformations to stats for current minor league players and projects their WAR for the first six years of their major league career.
Based how he was ranked and graded by other prospect lists it was a bit of a surprise to see Cheslor Cuthbert take the top spot in the KATOH rankings with 4.1 WAR projected over his first six seasons, a value that not only leads the Royals' 20th ranked farm system, but that also puts him 94th among all prospects. What made it surprising, rather than shocking, was that it was Cuthbert's second year atop the organization, and that his projected WAR was slightly down from last offseason's projection of 5.7.
In Mitchell's most recent primer on KATOH, he lays out a few important ways the system sees players. The first one on the list is an example of something Cuthbert is doing better than the rest of the top ranked position players in the system.
Strikeout rate matters a lot for hitters, especially when they're in the low minors.
Compare Cuthbert's strikeout rate at each level with a few of the other position players that appear both on the KATOH, and many of the traditional team prospect lists. Other than Dozier, Cuthbert has the lowest strikeout rate in the two lowest levels of the minors and his strikeout rate has been moving in the right direction as he's moved up. Bubba Starling started off with a lot of room to grown and has shown a modest improvement, while Dozier's strikeout rate shot up last season in AA. KATOH actually likes Mondesi (3.9 WAR over his first six seasons) almost as much as Cuthbert, despite the shortstop's consistently high strikeout rate and general lack of production at the plate in the minor leagues. This lack of production is tempered by his youth relative to levels he has played, but also because of an update to KATOH that takes into account a players defensive position. Since Mondesi plays a premium defensive position, he gets a boost.
|R||23% (191 PA)||20% (363 PA)||26% (305 PA)||31% (407 PA)|
|A||19% (342 PA)||8% (59 PA)||22% (563 PA)||26% (498 PA)|
|A+||15% (771 PA)||21% (267 PA)||26% (472 PA)||28% (600 PA)|
|AA||18% (659 PA)||28% (790 PA)||26% (338 PA)||25% (366 PA)|
|AAA||13% (538 PA)||-||-||-|
The juiciest part of the KATOH projections are the player comparisons for each team's best prospects, also known as their Mahalanobis Comps. For Cuthbert, of his ten closest comparables only one - Arquimedez Pozo - had a career major league WAR less than 2.4 (0.0) The two of the three most enticing comps, Aubrey Huff and Hank Blalock, were, at least for a time, good starters and both played both first and third base in their careers, as some scouts have speculated Cuthbert could. The comp that will really make Royals fans salivate is Chase Utley, who raked up 32.1 WAR over his first 6 years with the Phillies, especially if it meant Cuthbert could play second base. #VOTEOMAR.
While offensive production is considered differently for each defensive position in KATOH, the quality of play at the position is not included in the model. Consider again the position players from the table above. Dozier is solid defensively, Mondesi could be excellent, and Starling has drawn high praise for his ability to patrol center field. Not only that, but Mondesi and Starling each do it at premium positions and project to do it well enough to support a below average bat, if they fail to launch. This is a big part of what gives these players the edge over Cuthbert in the traditional lists, who John Sickels said has a good arm but has been erratic in the field. It is also why if he winds up at first base, it may be a position his bat is be able to support, despite currently projecting to be a better hitter.
Christian Colon will likely make the opening day roster as a bench player. In the majors, he's split his time fairly evenly across the second, third, and short, which will allow Ned Yost to use him to spell Omar Infante, Alcides Escobar, and Mike Moustakas. If, by some misfortune, Moose needs a week off with an injury or takes a trip the the disabled list, Cuthbert may once again get the call and we will get another chance to see whether he has the abilities KATOH projections in him.