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Meet the new Cheslor, same as the old Cheslor

Greetings from Corn Island!

Kansas City Royals v Toronto Blue Jays Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

In May of 2016, the defending World Champs (that still sounds nice) were dealt a blow when Alex Gordon and Mike Moustakas collided while chasing down a fly ball in foul territory. Gordon would miss nearly a month with a sprained wrist. Moustakas fared even worse, missing the rest of the season with a torn ACL.

To fill in for Moose at the hot corner, the Royals called up 23-year-old Cheslor Cuthbert, the smiley Nicaraguan with the 80/80 name (his middle name is Jesly, in case you doubt the grade). To his credit, Cheslor made the most of his opportunity slashing .278/.318/.413 in 510 plate appearances, good for a 95 wRC+. Those aren’t exactly eye-popping numbers, but for a young player to come up and swing a league-average bat down the stretch was a welcome surprise, even if his defense at third lacked luster (it did). After initially making the Opening Day roster as a bench player in 2017, he was demoted to AAA where he fought a string of injuries, collecting only a handful of major league at bats over that season and the next.

I’d honestly assumed we’d seen the last of Cheslor Cuthbert. But after raking in AAA to start the season, he earned the callup when Chris Owings was designated for assignment. He look stronger and more mature. He got off to a hot start, too, and appeared to have gained some pop in his bat. He still looked rough at third, but he made some nice plays at first, where his glove seemed like a better fit (or at least not such a liability). He’s still only 26, despite having been around for what seems like forever, and he’s a former top 100 prospect. So… is Cheslor Cuthbert kind of good now or what?

It’s true that Cheslor has changed in some ways since filling in for Moose in 2016. He’s pulling the ball a bit more, and when he hits the ball in the air it’s more likely to be a home run. According to Fangraphs, he’s increased his Hard Hit % nearly four points to 34.5%. And by Statcast’s Barrel statistic, he’s already just one shy of matching the 9 balls he barreled in 2016 despite having logged less than half as many plate appearances. His 4.7% barrel rate is still a point and a half below league average, but it’s a marked improvement. Overall, he's already been worth 0.5 fWAR, the same as his 2016 total, mostly as a result of improvement at the plate.

His defense is also better at first base. Defensive stats peg him as an average defender at first, with DRS, listing him at –1 and UZR at exactly +1.0 at the position. At third, they’re at -3 DRS/-1.9 UZR in 60 fewer innings. These are really small sample sizes for defensive metrics, but I think it’s safe to say that he’s getting the expected bump in performance by sliding across the diamond. Though not as easy as it’s sometimes made out to be, first base is lower on the defensive spectrum than third, and it stands to reason that Cheslor’s skills as an infielder would serve him well there.

Hitting the ball hard in the air is good, and Cheslor is doing more of it than he was when we saw him in 2016. A change in position has done him some good defensively as well. Unfortunately, the entire league is hitting the ball harder in the air than they were in 2016, and defense at first base isn’t nearly as valuable as it is at third. Those things alone aren’t enough.

He’s currently batting .293, of course, but that looks like a bit of smoke and mirrors. It’s not realistic to expect him to sustain a .343 BABIP over the course of a season. His career mark of .308 sounds about right, and Statcast data has his XBA at a more pedestrian .255. He’s never walked much, and despite an increase in pop and some luck on balls in play, he still only has a 103 wRC+, just barely above league average.

So what if this turns out to be what Cheslor Cuthbert is? If that’s the case, he’s a league-average hitting corner infielder who plays average defense at one corner of the infield. That’s probably not going to cut it. This year, third basemen are batting .261/.332/.457. If Cheslor played great defense at third, his .293/.332/.449 would be passable, but his defense is a liability over there, and despite some recent reps at the hot corner lately, it’s looking more likely that he’s a first baseman. That’s a problem because first basemen are batting .265/.353/.492 this year. His current batting line would make him one of the worst hitters in baseball at the position and no amount of defensive prowess would make up for it.

That’s not to say he’s done developing, and the Royals have had their share of late bloomers. The fact that he’s hitting the ball harder in the air is a good sign and a great skill to build upon. But he is going to have to do it more consistently, especially if he’s going to play an offense-first position like first base. His career walk rate of 6.3% isn’t likely to cut it at the cold corner either, where his peers are walking at an 11% clip. Fortunately, I think he’ll have every opportunity to show what he can do this year. With his current .357/.390/.679 line against left-handed pitching, he can give Ryan O’Hearn a break against lefties, and the revolving door in right field should free up third base a few times a week.

I think it’s unlikely he ends up being an everyday player, but you never know. Without much left to play for, the Royals might as well take a long look at Cheslor. What have they got to lose?