Last October, in the days after the regular season was complete, Cheslor Cuthbert boarded a flight at Kansas City International Airport and headed to Arizona. Cuthbert was exhausted, running on fumes after his rookie season with the Royals. But his work was not done.
After starting 123 games at third base, Cuthbert was set to surrender his job to Mike Moustakas, who was concluding rehab from a season-ending knee injury. So as the Royals started to scatter, heading home to rest and relax, Cuthbert headed to the desert to learn another trade.
For close to two weeks, Cuthbert worked out at second base, sweating through sessions with Rafael Belliard, the former major-league infielder and Royals special assistant. For close to two weeks, Cuthbert and Belliard labored through footwork drills, tested his range and turned hundreds of double plays. The results were not always perfect nor smooth. But there were glimpses of promise — enough for Belliard to offer his endorsement to Royals manager Ned Yost.
“Raffy said everything looked natural and good,” Yost said, before delivering his own review. “His range is fine. He’s athletic. He’s got an accurate arm. He’s got quick feet. He’ll be in that mix.”
In this case, the mix means the Royals’ second base competition, which is positioned to be the most wide-open battle in spring camp. As the Royals take the field on Friday for their first full-squad workout, Cuthbert will join Whit Merrifield, Christian Colon and Raul Mondesi in a four-way battle to be the club’s opening-day second baseman. Club officials insist there is no favorite to win the job.
“I’m looking for a guy to produce,” Yost said. “I’m looking for a guy that can catch ground balls, turn double plays, get hits. So that’s what we’re looking for.”
On the surface, Cuthbert’s presence in the competition would seem to be an outlier. He has started just three games at second base in his professional career — all at Class AA Northwest Arkansas — and he appears to lack the necessary speed and quickness to cover large swaths of the infield at second base. But for now, the Royals are selling the idea of Cuthbert at second.
“I’ve been watching him take grounders at second,” Yost said. “He looks fine, too. He’ll get a look at second base.”
The Royals, of course, have incentive to push the notion of Cuthbert at second. A 24-year-old third baseman, Cuthbert has been in the Royals’ system since 2009 and used up his third option year last season. As a result, he must make the 25-man roster or be placed on waivers, which would expose him to other teams. That leaves the question: If Cuthbert cannot play second base at least occasionally, do the Royals have room for him on their 25-man roster?
Club officials have all spring to ponder this question, but its answer could have long-term consequences. When the 2017 season is over, Moustakas will reach free agency for the first time. And Cuthbert is positioned as a long-term insurance policy at third base if Moustakas elects to sign elsewhere. But to hold onto that insurance, the Royals must keep Cuthbert on the roster.
“I want to be here,” Cuthbert said on Thursday. “And I’ll do everything possible to make it. I just want to fight and work hard at second base and get better.”
From an offensive perspective, Cuthbert’s bat would appear to be a fit at second. When Moustakas tore his ACL last May, Cuthbert took over at third and batted .274 with a .318 on-base percentage and 41 extra-base hits in 128 games.
And yet, the defensive questions remain. Cuthbert said he played close to 15 games at second during winter ball in Nicaragua. But the competition here is of a different caliber. And to win the job at second, Cuthbert must prove himself more valuable than Merrifield, Colon and Mondesi. So let the battle commence.
Merrifield, 28, enters spring training after an intriguing debut in 2016. He batted .283 with a .323 on-base percentage and sandwiched a couple of torrid stretches around an extended slump that led to a demotion in late July. Colon, 27, is a former first-round pick who has never produced at the big-league level despite two dramatic postseason moments. (The counter: Colon has rarely received consistent playing time.) And then there is Mondesi, 21, a former top prospect whose production at the plate has lagged behind his defensive prowess.
One caveat: There are other factors to consider. In addition to Cuthbert, Colon is also out of options, while Merrifield and Mondesi could be sent to Class AAA Omaha without having to clear waivers. The Royals, like most teams, crave roster inventory, so the option implications could color the organization’s decision.
“If you’re just tearing it up, there’s no organizational decision to be made,” Yost said. “It doesn’t matter who you are. If you’re just having a great spring, you want to start with the hot hand. But a lot of times, if you have guys that have options and guys that don’t, the guys that don’t have options probably have about a 5-yard lead in the race.”
If the Royals follow this rationale, it could give Colon or Cuthbert a momentary boost. But first, Cuthbert must prove himself capable of playing second base.
Can he? We shall see. For all four, the competition begins now.