As we count down the days until the start of the season, we’re profiling every player who is likely to be on the Cleveland Indians’ Opening Day roster and how he could impact the team. Today, we turn our attention to one of the leading candidates to join the Tribe’s bench: Russ Canzler.
Background: The Chicago Cubs took Canzler, who turns 26 in April, out of high school in the 30th round of the 2004 MLB amateur draft (so far, the only other pick from that round to make the majors is Jaime Garcia). He was primarily seen as organizational depth until 2010, when he started tearing up the high minors with the Cubs and Tampa Bay Rays’ organizations. The Indians acquired him from the Rays for cash in January.
Last year: Canzler destroyed Triple-A pitching, hitting .314/.401/.530 with 18 home runs and 83 RBI en route to winning the International League MVP award. It was an impressive performance, even when adjusted for the relative ease of the minors—Jeff Sackmann’s MLE calculator translates his numbers to a .269/.344/.440 triple-slash with a generic major league team—but his .396 BABIP is unsustainable at any level. Canzler also made a very brief MLB debut in 2011, going 1-for-3 with a walk and a sacrifice fly in three games for Tampa Bay.
Key factor: Can he hit in the big leagues? Clearly the general consensus is that he doesn’t have what it takes to be a successful MLB hitter—even the bargain-hunting Rays were willing to give him away for virtually nothing. His production is sure to decline in the majors, and with that .396 BABIP he’s due for some regression anyway. Not to mention that he’s somehow already been labeled a Quad-A player after just five (fairly successful) MLB plate appearances.
Canzler’s skill set is one-dimensional, so if he doesn’t hit there’s no reason for a team to keep him around. A player can still have a successful career without speed or glovesmanship— Travis Hafner is a huge part of the Indians’ lineup—but only if he can hit his way onto the roster.
Playing time discrepancies aside (ZIPS has Canzler getting 524 plate appearances, Marcel puts him at 202)
Note that the WAR figures could be changed quite drastically once we get a better idea of Canzler’s position and defensive aptitude (or lack thereof). For the purposes of these estimations I called him an average-fielding first baseman, which translates to his being a below-average left fielder and a complete sieve at third base. If you think he’d be able to hold his own at the hot corner, mentally shift the numbers up. If you think he’d make Matt LaPorta look good at first, move them down.
Best-case scenario: Canzler makes the Opening Day roster and successfully scavenges for playing time not just in left but at first, third, and designated hitter. He makes up for his BABIP-related regression by taking yet another step forward in his age-26 season and thus weasels his way into the lineup over 100 times, matching or slightly beating his RotoChamp projections. He stakes his claim to be the Tribe’s DH of the future and makes Chris Antonetti look like a genius for picking him up off the scrap heap.
Worst-case scenario: Canzler makes the team but struggles to find playing time. He shows the world why the Rays gave him up for nothing, his struggles on both sides of the ball exacerbated by the uncertainty of inconsistent opportunities and having to move around the diamond. He’s labeled a Quad-A player—like LaPorta, but without the upside—and spends most of the season in Columbus.
Most likely scenario: The mean projection looks pretty good to me. He won’t hit anywhere near .300 as his hit rate falls and he adjusts to MLB pitching, but he’s still got his power and plate discipline. He won’t use his glove very often, but his bat will make him a valuable asset off the bench in close games and as Hafner’s primary backup.