The idea has intrigued Royals officials for years, a muse that burrowed in the minds of scouts and executives. This month, the club will finally make a comprehensive evaluation on whether Cheslor Cuthbert can be an option at second base.
After the regular season concluded on Sunday afternoon, Cuthbert, a rookie third baseman, boarded a flight to Phoenix and headed for the Arizona Instructional League, where he will spend the next 10 days working out at second base at the Royals’ facility in Surprise, Ariz. For years, club officials have wondered if Cuthbert could handle the position, a move that would increase his versatility and offer more roster flexibility. For the next week and a half, the team’s brain trust will have a chance to see if the idea is realistic.
“He’s going to work at second base for about 10 days or so,” Royals general manager Dayton Moore said Monday. “And (it will) just give us a better idea if he can play there.”
The evaluation period comes after Cuthbert, 23, batted .274 with a .318 on-base percentage in 128 games this season, filling in for an injured Mike Moustakas at third base. And it comes as Moustakas, 28, prepares to return to his regular post in 2017 after a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee ended his season after just 27 games.
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In his first season of significant major-league duty, Cuthbert offered glimpses of a useful player with intriguing offensive skills before fading down the stretch. Yet as the offseason begins, the Royals could face a looming decision on Cuthbert, who is now out of options and can no longer be stashed in the minor leagues.
Club officials have pondered using Cuthbert in a rotation at the designated hitter spot, especially if the team is unable to bring back incumbent designated hitter Kendrys Morales or sign another full-time DH. But if the team opts to move forward with a true designated hitter in the lineup, Cuthbert could find himself in a roster crunch.
“We’ll just have to see,” Moore said. “I don’t know. If we have a true DH — if we bring Morales back — it’s a problem.”
Moore paused for a second and refashioned his stance.
“It’s not a problem,” he said. “It’s just an area we’re going to have to manage.”
The potential “problem” is why club officials wish to get a better idea on Cuthbert’s potential at second base.
As far back as 2014, the Royals have mulled the idea moving Cuthbert. At first, the idea was born because Cuthbert, a strong prospect, was blocked at the major-league level by Moustakas. Cuthbert made three starts at second at Class AA Northwest Arkansas in 2014, but he returned to full-time duty at Class AAA Omaha last year. This year, after a brief cameo at third base in May, Cuthbert was set to receive some second-base reps in the minor leagues. And then Moustakas collided with Alex Gordon on May 22 in Chicago. And the Royals needed Cuthbert at third.
For now, the Royals view the second base job as somewhat fluid. Manager Ned Yost has called the position “wide open” entering the offseason.
Whit Merrifield would appear to have an inside track to significant playing time after two solid stints in 2016, while rookie Raul Mondesi, still just 21 years old, and Christian Colon, a former first-round pick, also remain options. Merrifield finished with a .283 batting average and .323 on-base percentage in 81 games, posting an OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) of .716. He also offered above-average defense at second, according to advanced metrics. Club officials like Merrifield’s versatility — he could project as a valuable backup and utility man. But second base appears to be his strongest position.
The Royals also still have high hopes for Mondesi, who struggled at the plate in his first taste of extended big-league action. One of the organization’s top prospects, Mondesi batted just .185 with a .512 OPS in 149 plate appearances. But the club believes his offensive numbers will improve as he works on his pitch recognition at the big-league level.
And then there is Cuthbert, who could join the competition in spring training. But for now, club officials would prefer to wait and see. The biggest question: Can Cuthbert handle the defensive rigors at second base?
As a rookie, Cuthbert showcased a nimble athleticism at third base, making a handful of tremendous plays and diving stops. For a stretch, he filled in adequately for Moustakas. Yet according to the most respected defensive metrics — including Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating — Cuthbert still graded out slightly below average at the corner infield position. His arm was inconsistent at times. His range, according to the metrics, was worse than Moustakas’. Some of this, perhaps, is not a surprise. Rival evaluators grade Cuthbert’s overall speed as somewhere between average to below average. Which means Cuthbert will have to prove that he has the range to play second base.
Still, if the door closes at second, the Royals possess other options. As he met with reporters on Monday, Moore said the club would be active in the trade market this offseason, which could help solve roster issues or financial crunches. It’s also possible that Cuthbert could simply fill a role as a part-time third baseman and part-time DH.
Since before the 2015 season, the Royals have toyed with the idea of moving away from a traditional designated hitter and using the spot as a way to rest its core of every-day players. That idea was scrapped when the club signed Morales to a multi-year deal. But as they prepare to sketch out the offseason, club officials still view the idea as a possibility.
“If we don’t have the DH, if the DH spot is open, it kind of takes care of itself,” Moore said of Cuthbert. “Obviously, Moose is probably not going to play 162 games.
“It probably makes sense to keep that DH spot open if the team stays intact. But I just don’t know. We got to get deeper in the offseason (and) find out what we can do.”