Royals manager Ned Yost has declared second base an open four-way competition between Christian Colón, Whit Merrifield, Raúl Mondesí, and Cheslor Cuthbert. Many fans favor Whit Merrifield for the job, there is a case to be made for Colón, and Mondesí has perhaps the most upside, although he may not be Major League-ready.
But perhaps the most intriguing option is Cuthbert. As a 23-year old, Cuthbert held his own last year replacing Mike Moustakas at third base, hitting .274/.318/.413 with 12 home runs in 128 games. With Moustas back at third and Cuthbert out of options, the Royals are taking a look at him at second base. If Cuthbert could make the adjustment successfully, it could be a boon to the lineup. Although his 94 OPS+ last season didn’t set the world on fire, it was still better than any Royals second baseman has put up in a season since Mike Aviles in 2010, with the potential to improve.
Last fall I was skeptical of Cuthbert’s ability to move to second base. Cuthbert was a poor defender at third base, according to the metrics, with not much range and a tendency to make errors. Having limited range and poor hands would be exposed even further at second base. It is a transition few have made. Why is that?
Bill James came up with the idea of a defensive spectrum, to order positions on the field from most easiest to most difficult. The idea is that it is easy for players to go up the spectrum - a third baseman can usually move to first base without much trouble. But it is much more difficult for players to move down the spectrum - you couldn’t move a first baseman to shortstop without a whole lot of defensive problems.
Interestingly, second base is considered a less difficult position on the spectrum than third base. In fact, in positional adjustments for defensive metrics developed by Tom Tango (and adopted in some form by most analytics), second base and third base are considered equals, in defensive difficulty. As Dave Cameron at Fangraphs wrote, "second base is an overrated defensive position. It is lumped into the "up the middle" spots with catcher, shortstop, and center field, but is not actually that much more difficult to play than third base."
Not many players have moved from third base to second base with little to no experience, but the players that have moved have done so rather smoothly. Matt Carpenter was blocked at third base in St. Louis by World Series hero David Freese. In 2013, the Cardinals asked him to try second base, even though he had spent a total of five games at the position in his entire professional career. Carpenter worked on his quickness and agility and studied under Cardinals infield coach Jose Oquendo. He held his own defensively that season, and became an All-Star at second base.
Akinori Iwamura joined the Rays in 2007 as a free agent, having been a third baseman his entire professional career since he began in Japan at age 19. In 2008, the Rays had a promising young rookie named Evan Longoria, so they asked Iwamura to move to second base.
"Everything's reversed from third base. That's about the only thing I'm concerned about."
Iwamura too, held his own defensively and the Rays won 97 games that year and won their first American League pennant.
Anthony Rendon was a first round pick for the Nationals out of Rice University, but found his path to Washington blocked at third base by All-Star Ryan Zimmerman. When he was promoted to the big leagues in 2013, he had all of eight games of experience at second base. Nonetheless, the Nationals tried him at the position and while he was probably the worst defender out of these three examples, he was far from a disaster.
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The big difference was that all three players were fine defenders at third base, making the transition rather smooth. Cuthbert was actually a poor defender at third base last year, at least by the metrics. Still, he was only 23 last year, and less than one full season of defensive data is not the end of the story for a player. And if he is going to be poor defensively, why not move him somewhere where his bat can better overcome his defensive shortcomings?
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Am I still skeptical Cuthbert can make the transition? Absolutely. But teams like the Athletics and Cardinals have been lauded for thinking outside the box to find every ounce of competitive advantage. The odds may be against Cheslor Cuthbert moving to second base, but with few great options, it seems like a gamble worth at least trying.