The Royals current starting third baseman - every night, even! - is Cheslor Cuthbert. You probably knew that, but I had to start somewhere. When Cheslor was first promoted to play third base because of the initial injury to Mike Moustakas, he made an immediate impact. Though his first seven games he hit .286/.310/.464/.775 with 1 home run. Those aren’t Mike Trout numbers, to be sure, but we all knew that Mike Moustakas was coming back and they still sounded a lot better than what we were getting out of second base and so many began to dream about DFA-ing Omar and letting Cheslor play there when Moose was ready to return.
What we didn’t notice was even in that very small sample size, his WPA and RE24 stats were both negative: -6.1% and -0.90, respectively. By the time Moustakas returned to the lineup, Cheslor’s offensive statistics looked more like this:
That is a significant downturn to .255/.269/.373/.642. The WPA and RE24 similarly decreased. If you look at the per-162 RE24 he was actually on a pace to cost the team 32.6 runs over a full season, which is about three losses. We thought, "that's okay, he's still better than Omar Infante." Actually Omar’s stats this year scaled to 162 games actually result in -250% WPA and -18.6 RE24, but he’s gone so we don’t need to worry about that anymore.
Of course, Moustakas tore his ACL and Cuthbert had to be re-summoned from Omaha. Those stats seemed a lot less appealing while they were replacing a hero of the last one and a half years like Moustakas. Some have even begun clamoring for the team to promote Hunter Dozier, who finally seems to have regained his prospect status after a couple of very rough years at AA. Others would prefer the Royals trade for someone like Martin Prado.
Cuthbert’s season stats, however, are starting to look pretty good again (All following tables through June 25):
That’s good for a 100 wRC+, or exactly league average. But what if I told you that in the June, his line looked more like this?
Now that’s a player you don’t mind playing every day! .311/.363/.541/.903, good for a 142 wRC+! I know, I know. The BABIP is very much on the high side of what you’d expect, especially for a surprisingly slow-footed runner and when it normalizes the numbers won’t quite as pretty. He is also still not producing a very large RE24 surplus, but he’s not a deficit anymore - though if you just took the last week he’d have a 150% WPA and an RE24 surplus pace of 54.
There are even more positives, too, though. For one thing, Ryan Lefebvre has asserted repeatedly in the last week or so that Cuthbert seems to be taking more pitches, and this line appears to agree with him. Six of his eight walks on the season have come in the last 22 games. FanGraphs says he has seen 4.4 pitches per plate appearance vs the 3.9 he had in May. His hard-hit balls have also skyrocketed to an impressive, though likely unsustainable 39.6%, mostly taken from his medium-hit balls, which along with a decreased GB% - 10% less this month - has contributed to seven times as many home runs in just two more games.
So let’s talk about his defense. The player he is replacing is known as an elite defender who might have a shot at a Gold Glove if he didn’t play in the same league as Manny Machado. It is unreasonable to expect Cuthbert to reach the same level of defensive production, especially considering he hasn’t been known for it in the minor leagues, either.
And so far this year, Cuthbert has about half the UZR/150 that Mike Moustakas had before getting hurt. Defensive Runs Saved actually has him at -1, so far, as well. He just doesn’t have the same range Moose has, though he appears to be less prone to errors, at least in this tiny sample size. The eye-test also indicates he’s got an arm at least as good as Moose’s.
So Cheslor already has some ups and downs as a hitter this season, his fielding has been acceptable, but not spectacular. What about the future? What do the projections say about him and other possible candidates to replace him?
Steamer and FanGraphs Depth Charts both project him to worth nearly 1 WAR in the second half, which would make him worth 2 WAR over the course of the year, a benchmark often seen as the starting point for being a productive major leaguer. ZiPs WAR projection is lower, but so is it’s games played projection. Basically all three systems project Cheslor to be a perfectly serviceable major league baseball player for the rest of the year.
How about some of the guys the Royals could try to replace him with? Prado projects to be a better hitter than Cuthbert going forward, but has been a slightly worse defender, by the stats, so far this year. Steven Pearce is actually project to be very good offensively the rest of the season, but he’s barely played at third base this year, and hadn’t played there since 2011 until joining the Rays so it’s anyone’s guess what kind of defense you could expect out of him. David Freese can still hit a little, but appears to have lost most of his range at 3B and the Pirates may still believe they are in the running when we get closer to the trade deadline. All of those guys also cost something in the way of prospects and/or money, so that has to be considered as well. Dozier is still hitting very well at AAA, but not as well as Cuthbert was before he was brought up to replace Moustakas, so you probably can’t expect him to outperform Cuthbert, who also has the advantage of having seen some major league pitching, now.
When I first started thinking about this piece, the prevailing sentiment seemed to be that Cuthbert was just not performing at the level the Royals needed him to in order to have a real shot at returning to the playoffs this season. Before I was able to finish it some people were asking if we might possibly trade Moustakas away or otherwise make room for Cuthbert to be our starting third baseman, even after this season. In the end, the reality seems to lie between the two extremes. Cuthbert seems quite likely to be good enough to get the job done this season, but he does not appear to be as good as Moustakas. He is still a good ball player, so when Moose comes back next year the Royals have some tough choices to make. This is a good problem to have, because as you may have heard, third basemen don’t grow on trees.