Cheslor Cuthbert is a 23-year-old who is batting .296 with nine homers in his first full major-league season. He has hit .329 since the All-Star break, and his .778 OPS ranks sixth among American League rookies. And for the moment, he remains the Royals’ second-best third baseman.
The title, of course, still belongs to Mike Moustakas, who is rehabbing from a season-ending knee injury. But the emergence of Cuthbert sets up an intriguing question entering the offseason.
The Royals have Moustakas under contract through next season. They have Cuthbert settling into a regular role. And they also possess top prospect Hunter Dozier, another third baseman who has spent the season raking at Class AAA Omaha and Class AA Northwest Arkansas.
In one sense, of course, it’s a good problem to have. In another, it could necessitate some roster creativity heading into 2017.
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“Those are baseball decisions that we’ll have to make and analyze,” Royals general manager Dayton Moore said. “We’re fortunate that all of those guys are athletic enough to play multiple positions. Of course, we have the DH slot in the American League.
“There are ways to utilize those players in an effective way. But you can never have too many good players.”
The Royals believe Cuthbert has the athleticism to handle multiple positions, including second base, should the scenario present itself. It could also be tempting to use the designated hitter role as a way to keep both Moustakas and Cuthbert involved. Designated hitter Kendrys Morales will likely become a free agent after the season and an internal replacement at the position could provide financial savings for other offseason priorities.
Moustakas, 27, posted the best season of his career in 2015, hitting .284 with 22 homers and 34 doubles. He was worth 4.4 wins above replacement, according to Baseball Reference’s version of WAR, and he appeared poised for another strong year in 2016 before injuries derailed a promising start. Moustakas was batting .273 with seven homers in April before suffering a fractured thumb in a road game in Anaheim. He returned in the middle of May before suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee on May 22.
Club officials expect Moustakas to be ready by spring training in 2017. He is slated to make $8.7 million next season, his final year before reaching free-agency.
And then there is Dozier, a 24-year-old third baseman in the midst of his best minor-league season. He entered Monday batting .308 with 21 homers in time split between Class AA Northwest Arkansas and Class AAA Omaha. He is a former first-round pick who burnished his prospect credentials with a trip to the Futures Game in July. He has recently begun seeing more playing time in the outfield, including starts in right field.
The Royals believe Dozier’s offensive ability is close to major-league ready. So now, the goal is to make him more versatile.
“Once a player’s bat becomes close or major-league ready, you got to look for opportunity for him on the major-league team,” Moore said. “And we’re fortunate he’s athletic enough and can play multiple positions.”
A former college shortstop at Stephen F. Austin, the 6-foot-4 Dozier has logged starts at first base and both corner outfield spots, in addition to regular time at third. He could be an option for a September call-up, where he could showcase his new-found versatility.
“When we drafted him, he was a shortstop,” Moore said. “And I know we talked at that time very openly and publicly about his versatility. He’s able to play a lot of different positions if need be.”
For now, of course, the starting third-base job belongs to Cuthbert, who has continued to prove himself with a strong second half. In the weeks after replacing Moustakas in early May, Cuthbert followed a fast start with a mild slump. By June 10, he was batting just .253 with a .273 on-base percentage. What happened next was a testament to his growth, Royals manager Ned Yost says. Cuthbert batted .340 while playing strong defense in July, taking Royals’ player of the month honors. The production has continued during the first week of August.
“The thing that’s special about him for a young guy is that he’s really, really coachable,” Yost said.
At some point, of course, the Royals will have to make a firmer decision on how they will handle a wealth of third-base options. But that process, Moore says, will come later. For now, Cuthbert has made the decision more complex, which is a good problem to have.
“(Hitting coach Dale Sveum) has shown him how to do his homework.” Yost said of Cuthbert. “How to get in there, how to get on the video, how to watch, how to prepare, how to understand what pitchers are trying to do. And he’s able to make adjustments in his mechanics very, very quickly.”