One of the hot names in the prospect community as 2011 concluded was third-baseman Cheslor Cuthbert of the Kansas City Royals. He ranked 84th on Baseball America’s Top 100, and he ranked fifth in the Royals’ organization rankings. He was one of the premium low-level talents that could skyrocket in another year. That said, he’s posted just a .606 OPS in 245 plate appearances at Hi-A Wilmington so far in 2012, and I’ve seen a number of places suddenly concerned with how highly he was thought of following 2011. Is the concern justified?
There’s a lot to like about Cuthbert, both in 2011 and 2012. The most attractive thing about the native of Nicaragua is how young he is; he won’t turn 20(!) until November, three months after his second year in full-season ball concludes. His 2011 campaign, when considering his age, was fantastic overall. He walked more than 10% of his plate appearances, fanned less than 20% of his plate appearances and was relatively luck neutral from an average-on-balls-in-play perspective. His line-drive percentage of 17% jived well with his other data.
It also wasn’t a surprise that Cuthbert performed admirably as an 18-year-old in full-season; he signed for 1.35m in 2009, and was said to have an advanced approach and a “simple swing” upon signing, which lead the Royals to promote him aggressively. Aside from being slow/thick, he also has the tools to stick at 3B.
There has been plenty of “good” in 2012 for Cuthbert, as well. Despite being challenged with a Hi-A assignment in his teens, Cuthbert’s peripherals have actually improved. He’s striking out under 16% of his plate appearances and his walk rate is again solid, at 9%. His .226 average is largely a product of being terribly unlucky (.263 BABIP), but there are underlying elements that make that a bit more concerning than at first glance.
While Cuthbert had a solid 2011 campaign with Lo-A Kane County, detractors continue to point to how much he faded down the stretch. Indeed, after posting terrific campaigns in May, June and July of 2011, Cuthbert fell off the wagon in August, posting a .127/.271/.203 triple slash, and he didn’t fare much better in a small sample in September, with a .525 OPS. He was unlucky in August (.184 average-on-balls-in-play), but he also fanned 30% of his plate appearances, which was completely out of the norm for the rest of 2012. It could easily have been fatigue, but his 2012 start hasn’t exactly helped to quiet his doubters.
While Cheslor has certainly reigned his peripheral stats back in to start 2012, he is hitting an inordinate amount of ground balls compared to last season (up 13%!). There are certainly ball-in-play caveats with scorekeepers at lower levels, but that is a significant spike. Not surprisingly, his line-drive percentage has dropped 8% as well. Effectively, he’s hitting more balls (groundballs and flyballs) that are easier to turn into outs. So while his ball-in-play data is still unusually low, the grounders and lack of line drives are helping to drive that number in that direction.
I think a good rule of thumb here with Cuthbert is that if you liked him after the 2011 season, there’s really no less reason to like him now. It’s not as if Cuthbert posted a .900 OPS or 30 homers in his debut; rather, his appeal was that he fared so well CONSIDERING HIS AGE, particularly if you look at stats like K% and BB%. Understandably, I think perhaps a bump in isolated power was expected, but considering Cuthbert’s still growing at 19, there’s no reason to think it won’t come eventually. He has improved his peripherals and really just needs to figure out why he’s pounding balls into the ground.
The most important thing about Cuthbert is that his 2011 struggles (strikeout rate, likely fatigue) really have nothing to do with his 2012 struggles (lots of grounders, low average-on-balls-in-play). I think we’d need to see a larger sample of Cuthbert hitting grounders before panicking about any kind of trend, but we have no reason to panic about Cuthbert suddenly losing the ability to make contact. In light of that, I still think he has plenty of time to figure it out (again, 19 at Hi-A) even if he needs to repeat a level. I still see him as a top 100 prospect given his enormous upside.
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