Russ Canzler is Free. Now What?

The “Free Russ Canzler” movement can turn its attention toward the plight of some other minor league masher buried on the depth chart. Canzler, the 2011 International League MVP, figured to toil at Triple-A Durham again next year after the Tampa Bay Rays signed Luke Scott to DH and Carlos Pena to man first base. But the Cleveland Indians picked him up for cash after Tampa DFA’d Canzler, adding right-handed punch to a lefty-laden club that has tired of former CC Sabathia trade bauble Matt LaPorta‘s flailing at first base.

So, Canzler (26 in April) has the chance to free himself from the chains of the “Quad-A” label. Is he up to the task? Maybe. Canzler’s power is impressive, he may well be Cleveland’s best option at first and his versatility will help him make the squad this spring, but putting his minor league numbers in greater context removes some of the sheen from his award-winning slugging.

Canzler lasted 906 picks into the 2004 draft, finally getting popped by the Chicago Cubs in the 30th round out of a Pennsylvania high school. It took him three years to reach a full-season league, and the 6-2, 220 pound hitter didn’t exactly wallop pitchers once he got to A-Ball. Canzler posted a .697 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in the Low-A Midwest League in 2007 and a .779 OPS in the High-A Florida State League in 2008-2009. Those are pitcher-friendly environments, but a guy mostly playing first base isn’t going to climb prospect lists with those stats.

His fortunes began to change upon a mid-May promotion to the Double-A Southern League, however. During the rest of 2009 and in 2010, Canzler slashed .276/.362/.500 in 678 plate appearances with the Tennessee Smokies, with his .862 OPS beating the league average by a full 20 percent. Signed to a minor league deal by the Rays last winter, Canzler fared even better with the Bulls while winning International League hardware in 2011. He swatted 18 home runs with a .314/.401/.530 line in 549 PA, splitting time more evenly among the four corner spots. Canzler’s .930 OPS ranked fourth in the IL behind Trevor Plouffe, Denis Phipps and Ryan Lavarnway (none of whom spent the whole season in Triple-A) and was 28 percent better than the league average.

Canzler has crushed minor league pitching at the upper levels, yet he has just five big league plate appearances to his name and isn’t guaranteed a roster spot in 2012, either. Why might teams be skeptical about how his bat translates to the highest level?

The first smudge on Canzler’s resume is his age. He lit up Double-A at age 23-24 and Triple-A at age 25. Sure, it’s not like he was the Jamie Moyer of the Southern and International Leagues, but that’s long in the tooth at those levels for a legitimate prospect. If Canzler makes it to Cleveland next year, he’ll be a rookie at age 26. The average age for rookie position players in 2011 was 23.8. Canzler is a few years older than the typical MLB newcomer, and he likely has less upside and development time remaining. What you see is basically what you get.

Another concern is park factors. Canzler hit for a lot of power, but he also benefited by playing in two parks that give a big boost to right-handed sluggers. Smokies Park (AA) has a 124 HR park factor for righty hitters, according to StatCorner. Durham Bulls Athletic Park (AAA) is even more kind to righty power, with a 142 HR park factor. Canzler did actually hit better on the road (.327/.416/.539) than at home (.303/.381/.522) in 2011, so perhaps he’s not just a product of Durham. Still, he won’t find Progressive Field (87 HR park factor for righties) near as cozy.

One other quibble with Canzler is his contact rate. He struck out 20% of the time in the Southern League, which was about 11 percent higher than the league average. In Triple-A, his 23.5% punch out rate was 19 percent above the International League average. K’s don’t necessarily preclude a hitter from having success, but Canzler’s whiffs are concerning. If you’re coming up empty or watching strike three go by that often in Triple-A, what happens when you have to time Justin Verlander‘s fastball or fight off a Chris Sale slider?

With a K rate that high, it’s going to be tough for Canzler to keep his average above the .250 range (Brian Cartwright’s Oliver predicts a .259 average; Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS has a less-sanguine .237 projection). That puts a big burden on his secondary skills, which are good but hardly star-level. If he’s a .260 hitter like Oliver thinks, then he has a decent big league bat (Oliver projects a .330 OBP and a .440 slugging percentage). If Canzler a .230-.240 hitter, then not so much (a .308 OBP and a .390 slugging percentage, per ZiPS).

Canzler is a worthwhile add for the Indians and he fits well on the roster, considering LaPorta’s continued failings and that all three of Cleveland’s starting outfielders (Michael Brantley, Grady Sizemore, Shin-Soo Choo) and third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall swing from the left side. His ability to play all four corners also gives him a leg up on other players vying for a roster spot like Aaron Cunningham, Ryan Spilborghs and Chad Huffman. But Canzler does face internal competition from a similar slugger in Shelley Duncan, and Carlos Santana figures to get some starts at first. Cleveland could also sign someone like Casey Kotchman to take over at the position.

Canzler’s versatility and pop give him a chance at playing time in Cleveland, but he has minor league options remaining and could open the year back in Triple-A (I guess you shouldn’t disband that “Free Russ Canzler” group just yet). And when you, as Brian Kenny might say, put Canzler’s stats “through the shredder,” they no longer seem quite as special. He could be an option in deep leagues if he survives the spring training scrum for a roster spot. Just don’t expect an undiscovered, Pronk-like star to emerge.



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A recent graduate of Duquesne University, David Golebiewski is a contributing writer for Fangraphs, The Pittsburgh Sports Report and Baseball Analytics. His work for Inside Edge Scouting Services has appeared on ESPN.com and Yahoo.com, and he was a fantasy baseball columnist for Rotoworld from 2009-2010. He recently contributed an article on Mike Stanton's slugging to The Hardball Times Annual 2012. Contact David at david.golebiewski@gmail.com and check out his work at Journalist For Hire.


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Brad Johnson
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From what I’ve heard, the biggest problem with Canzler’s game is his bat speed. That often is the feature that distinguishes a Dallas McPherson from a Carlos Pena. If he’s swinging a slow stick, he’s going to be unable to adjust to MLB quality pitching.

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