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Russ Canzler Enters 1B/LF Fracas

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Seems like a nice fellow.
Seems like a nice fellow.

The Indians added Russ Canzler from the Rays today, acquiring him for cash and a willingness to throw him on the 40. Canzler will compete against Matt LaPorta and, probably to a lesser extent, the pile of LF'ers the Indians have (Felix Pie, Aaron Cunningham, and favorite in the clubhouse Michael Brantley) for time at 1B and LF.

Canzler was drafted out of high school in the 30th round of the 2004 draft by the Chicago Cubs. He never hit at anything close to a prospect-level until he was getting his second look at AA. That was too late for the Cubs, though. Teams get six contract renewals with a player before they are forced to either grant him free agency or add him to the 40-man roster. The Cubs used last offseason to tackle their 1B deficiency aggressively when they signed Carlos Peña, and that plan was certainly already being formed when they elected to let Canzler walk.

Similarly, the Rays must have known that Peña's contract demands were not going to fit within their budget when they entered the winter break and, as a result, they went looking for ways to bolster depth. The eventual solution came in the form of Casey Kotchman but earlier in the ofseason, in mid-November, they signed Canzler to a minor-league contract as a way to backstop their free agent shopping and gird against injury.

For his part of the bargain, Canzler got to play Speaker of the House (that's 3rd in line) to President Kotchman and Vice President Dan Johnson. He also got regular time at AAA, appearing in 1B, 3B, RF, and LF, splitting duties with Johnson, among others. Canzler did well with that playing time and was rewarded with his first taste of the major leagues, appearing in three September games after rosters expanded. You can evaluate Canzler's 2011, and the rest of his minor league career, for yourself:

Year Age Tm Lev Aff G PA H 2B 3B HR BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
2004 18 Cubs Rk CHC 32 119 26 2 3 1 9 35 .248 .310 .352 .663
2005 19 Cubs Rk CHC 49 188 47 11 3 1 24 41 .299 .387 .427 .814
2006 20 Boise A- CHC 73 311 74 22 4 16 22 70 .264 .319 .543 .862
2007 21 Peoria A CHC 125 503 124 24 2 7 35 88 .270 .321 .376 .697
2008 22 Daytona A+ CHC 98 361 89 22 2 12 27 70 .273 .327 .463 .790
2009 23 2 Teams AA-A+ CHC 118 375 87 23 1 8 38 65 .261 .337 .408 .745
2009 23 Daytona A+ CHC 28 108 27 8 1 2 7 24 .270 .315 .430 .745
2009 23 Tennessee AA CHC 90 267 60 15 0 6 31 41 .258 .346 .399 .745
2010 24 Tennessee AA CHC 112 411 102 28 4 21 46 95 .287 .372 .566 .938
2011 25 Durham AAA TBR 131 549 149 40 4 18 67 129 .314 .401 .530 .930
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 1/31/2012.

So, the trajectory here is of a 1B-type who never does anything of note until he becomes a bit too old for his level, taking on the man-among-boys mantle and, even at that point, still not setting the world on fire. His 2010 and 2011 were decent go-rounds, but he struggles in some key areas. Notably, Canzler has a lot of swing-and-miss in his game, and his power, while good looking the SLG column, is more tied up in doubles than any Canzler-devotees would like to see. Stop me if you've heard this one, but AAA doubles are often the product of poor fielding combined with some decent contact, and at the big league level, those balls stop finding inflated gaps.

It's fun to think of Canzler as having the upside of a Phil Nevin or Nelson Cruz, late-blooming sluggers, but those gentlemen each have creation stories that don't comp easily to our man Russ. Nevin was rushed, then injured and when he finally clicked, it was as a 25 year-old with 24 AAA home runs in only 98 games; if you add in his stint in the majors that year, he had 32 taters 136 games. You can back of the napkin how different that is from Canzler's power display and the G/HR rates are quite different: Canzler went yard about every 7 games in AAA, while Nevin did it every 4.25 across AAA and the majors. In other words, Russ was setting off a bottle rocket in his driveway while Phil was running the 4th of July finale for the the local parks department. Nevin still had a lot to figure out, but he showed a power tool that Canzler has not.

The Cruz story is much the same and I'll abbreviate it. Nelson hit 46 homeruns as a 22 and 23 y/o across all four minor league levels; Russ hit only 39 as a 24 and 25 y/o in AA and AAA. Again, the comparison is the same: cap gun, meet cannon. Granted, HR totals in a vacuum aren't indicative of pedigree but in the context of Cruz and Nevin's scouting reports, it's clear that there's a difference between Canzler and the genuine article.

None of this is to say that Canzler isn't a cagey acquisition. He was acquired for little cost and no one should be shocked if he wins a job out of camp: he's right-handed and, at a minimum, he has not had time to condition Manny Acta's throat to fill with stomach acid the way it does when Matt LaPorta steps into the batter's box. And, of course, we can be hard on Canzler, but it takes all kinds of trajectories to fill out 30 rosters and it would not be shocking if Canzler has turned enough of a corner to hang around as a useful piece for a number of major league seasons. He could easily fashion a Shelley Duncan career for himself or, on the high side, turn into a less defensively capable Casey Blake. If he were able to do either of those things, he'd help the Indians a lot in the process.

We'll close with a note from an expert. Kevin Goldstein wrote up Canzler as part of his piece on minor league MVPs (Canzler hoisted the IL MVP trophy last season), and he stated all of what I did above, just much more succinctly:

Canzler is a classic upper-level MVP, a 25-year-old former 30th-round pick by the Cubs who signed with the Rays over the winter as a free agent. He’s in his eighth minor-league season. As a bulky, slow first baseman who can also play left field, he's a good bat, but not good enough to everyday big-league play at either position. His right-handedness doesn’t help his cause. Canzler’s .314/.401/.530 line is impressive, but a high strikeout rate and merely average power will likely leave him as an up-and-down type.