Prospect Smackdown: Cheslor Cuthbert vs. Miguel Sano
Per reader request, here is a Prospect Smackdown featuring a pair of American League Central Division third base prospects, Cheslor Cuthbert of the Kansas City Royals and Miguel Sano of the Minnesota Twins.
Cuthbert: Cuthbert was signed by the Royals in 2009 from Nicaragua, more specifically Big Corn Island off the Atlantic coast. He earned a robust $1,350,000 bonus, despite a lack of top competition as an amateur. His makeup is highly-regarded and he is already fully fluent in English, which is the principle language spoken on Big Corn.
Sano: Sano was signed by the Twins in 2009 out of the Dominican Republic. Well-known to scouts, he was rated as the top international prospect available that year, and the Twins won the bidding war with a $3,150,000 bonus. There was some question about his age and background during the bidding war, but an intensive MLB investigation revealed no irregularities.
Advantage: Sano had the higher profile as an amateur, but Cuthbert was also well-respected and stands out for his unusual background.
PHYSICALITY, HEALTH, AND TOOLS
Cuthbert: Cuthbert is a 5-11, 195 pound right-handed hitter and thrower, born November 16, 1992. His running speed is below-average and he has a thickish lower half, but he has a strong throwing arm. Although some observers wonder if he'll pick up too much weight to remain at third base long-term, the Royals and many non-Royals observers believe he'll remain at third base and can be a very good defender there. With the bat, he has above-average power potential with sock to all fields and a very good sense of the strike zone. He is an unusually polished hitter given his background. He has had no significant injuries, but appeared very tired in August and his play suffered as a result (see below).
Sano: Sano is a 6-3, 235 pound right-handed hitter and thrower, born May 11, 1993. He's huge and getting bigger, and while he has a strong throwing arm, he is still quite raw at both shortstop and third base. He can't stick at short and will either be a third baseman (if he gets more reliable) or a corner outfielder (if he doesn't). Sano has enormous power and isn't just a pure pull hitter, mashing the ball for distance in all directions. His pure hitting skills aren't bad, but he's still feeling his way around the strike zone and has occasional issues with breaking balls. He strikes out a lot and probably always will. He's had no significant injury problems.
Advantage: Both players have defensive questions, but Cuthbert has a better chance to stick at third than Sano does and is certainly more reliable with the glove at present. Neither of them are going to steal bases. Cuthbert's pure hitting skills and plate discipline are a tick ahead of Sano's at this point and he makes better contact, but while Cuthbert has very good power, Sano has colossal power. Sano is also six months younger.
Cuthbert: Playing in Low-A last year at age 18, Cuthbert got off to a terrific start in the Midwest League for Kane County after joining the team out of extended spring training, hitting .305/.357/.513 in May, .307/.469/.440 in June, and .356/.400/.511 in July. He pitched into a deep slump in August however, hitting just .135/.280/.208 in his last 28 games. He still controlled the strike zone during this period, but looked physically gassed and his bat speed slowed down. His overall line of .267/.345/.397 in 300 at-bats was just okay, but doesn't reflect the impression he made on scouts and managers before August. Skeptics bring up sample size issues and say he was just getting lucky early, but optimists point out that Cuthbert was the youngest hitter in the league, and nobody who say him play before August thought he was just getting lucky.
Sano: Sano was extraordinarily effective as a power hitter in the Appalachian League, hitting .292/.352/.637 with 18 doubles and 21 homers in just 267 at-bats. On the negative side, he struck out 77 times in just 66 games, and he expands the strike zone often enough to be worrisome. Sano remained hot all summer and didn't wear down the way Cuthbert did. On the other hand, Sano was at a lower level and facing weaker competition, but then again, he is also younger than Cuthbert.
Advantage: This would be easier to read if Cuthbert had been playing in the Appy League himself: he would certainly have been age-appropriate for the level, and even with the late slump, his performance in the difficult Midwest League was very credible for his age. Cuthbert's superior contact skills are also a point in his favor, but even with his strikeout issues, Sano power is so devastating that I think he has to get the edge here.
Cuthbert: Cuthbert projects to hit for both average and power, and his ability to make hard contact and avoid excessive strikeouts at a young age is a big positive. With proper development, he can develop into a .280-.300 hitter with 20+ homers per season and a very good OBP. Assuming he remains at the hot corner, that's a first-division regular.
Sano: The main risk for Sano's development is contact: he might not maintain strong batting averages and OBPs with that kind of strikeout rate. That said, given anything like a normal skill growth curve, he projects as a 30-40 home run hitter at the major league level. With some tweaks in his approach, he can hit for average and OBP as well.
Advantage: Cuthbert's hitting skills are more balanced right now and he has a better chance to stick at third base defensively, but Sano's power potential is truly special. Even at a corner outfield spot (or first base), Sano's power is a more dominant tool than any of Cuthbert's and I think his overall ceiling is higher. That said, both of these guys have the potential to develop into All-Stars.
Overall, Sano comes out ahead for me, but it is closer than you might think, if you believe that the pre-August Cuthbert was the real one, which I do. I ranked Sano as the Number 14 hitting prospect in baseball in the 2012 Baseball Prospect Book, with Cuthbert checking in a few spots down at Number 18.
I am working on a combined Top 100 Prospects list and should have it done by the end of this week. Sano will rank ahead of Cuthbert on that list, too, but how will they rank in comparison to other players and the pitchers? Has my thinking changed since I finished the book in January? Stay tuned.