It has been a long road to the big leagues for Cheslor Cuthbert, who originally signed out of Nicaragua in 2009 for a rather large bonus of $1.35 million. Cheslor went from being a Top 100 prospect in baseball in 2012 to being an after thought after a few underwhelming seasons. Still just 23 years old, Cuthbert is back on the radar with a solid season in Omaha last year and a sensational start to this year. He is back in the big leagues due to the thumb fracture to Mike Moustakas. However, with Moustakas expected back at some point, the question is, where does that leave Cheslor Cuthbert?
The Royals have Mike Moustakas signed through the 2017 season, so presumably third base will be occupied for the near future. Former first-round pick Hunter Dozier, who is also primarily a third baseman, has turned his career around with a hot start and was recently promoted to Omaha. With third base occupied, that leaves Cuthbert looking to other positions to make the big leagues. Could he play second base?
"He’s athletic enough," Yost said, mulling the question. "He’s played some second base in spring training. He’ll take his ground balls at third, and then take some at second."
Cuthbert has started 478 games in the minor leagues, 436 at third base, 39 at first base, and just three at second base. It is a ridiculously small sample size, but in thirteen chances at second base, he committed two errors. The transition from third base to second base is actually a move down the defensive spectrum, however it requires a much different skillset. Third basemen require quick reflexes and a strong arm. Cheslor Cuthbert, to his credit, has worked to go from a below-average defender at third a few years ago to looking quite impressive in a small sample of games in Kansas City. He shows good instincts and a rifle arm on this play in Cleveland over the weekend.
However at second base, quick reflexes are not as necessary. Second basemen play deeper and have more time to react. What is needed, is soft hands, and good range to cover a lot of ground quickly. Here is an example of the range needed for both positions, a spray chart showing the plays made this year by Mike Moustakas and Omar Infante.
Could Cheslor Cuthbert make those kind of plays? Maybe. He has a thicker frame than you typically see out of second basemen which tends to reduce agility and athleticism. But baseball has certainly had its share of bigger second basemen. Ryne Sandberg stood 6'1'', just like Cuthbert, and was bigger than most second basemen of his era, and he was a Gold Glover. Jeff Kent was also 6'1'' and while he struggled defensively, he was good enough to stick at the position for several years, largely due to his bat.
However Sandberg and Kent both came up as middle infielders, spending years working at the position. Cuthbert has played almost exclusively at third. The history of third basemen moving to second base later in their career is not a long one.
Matt Carpenter of the St. Louis Cardinals is perhaps the most recent example of a third baseman moving across the diamond. Carpenter had not played an inning at second base at a professional level until 2012 with the Cardinals for a few games. In 2013, he took over second base full time when David Freese returned from injury. Carpenter held his own at second, with an Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) per 150 chances of -2.0, with defensive numbers roughly as good as Jose Altuve. However after just one year, Carpenter moved back to third base following a trade of Freese.
Jim Gantner is perhaps the most successful long-term conversion to second base. He came up as a third baseman through the Brewers farm system in the 1970s, but with veterans Sal Bando and Don Money at third base, Gantner had to learn other infield positions to get on the field. The Brewers were impressed with his bat and his ability to pivot on the double play, and he ended up playing 1,449 games at second base over a 17-year career in Milwaukee.
Brett Lawrie transitioned to second base this year after years at third base, although he originally came up as a second baseman. Rich Dauer, Akinori Iwamura, and Jeff Baker are other examples of third basemen transitioning to second, with varying degrees of success. The Royals even tried such a transition with Mark Teahen in 2009, but ended the experiment after just three games.
The Royals have worked Cuthbert out at second, however if they really felt like he could handle second base, you would think he would have played it more in the minor leagues. With no real second base prospect in the system, Cuthbert would conceivably have a better shot at making the big leagues by getting game time action in at Omaha. However that has not been the case.
The Royals have traditionally been a team that values defense up the middle, including second base. The precedent set by Royals Hall of Famer Frank White has been carried over by Dayton Moore, who has long favored glove men like Chris Getz over bat-first infielders like Mike Aviles or Johnny Giavotella. It is part of the reason the team has deferred to Omar Infante, despite him being the worst offensive player in baseball the last three seasons, because he provides much better defense than Christian Colon.
"I feel like I have the range to play it," Cuthbert said. "I just need to keep working and get better, like I did at third base."
Maybe he can. It would be nice to get a bat like his in the lineup over the impotent Omar Infante. But the fact so few third basemen make the conversion successfully make me skeptical. If the Royals are going to gamble with his defense at second base, they need to get him some reps in Omaha first.