None of us can imagine what the last few months have been like for Russ Canzler. Despite putting up a .287/.372/.566 line with 28 doubles and 21 homers as a 24 year old at Double-A Tennessee in the Cubs system, the Cubs allowed Canzler to leave as a free agent and signed with the Rays. At Triple-A Durham, Canzler was even better than he was in 2010, posting a .314/.401/.530 line with 40 doubles, 18 homers, and 83 RBI, enough for him to earn International League MVP. In September, Canzler appeared in 3 games for the Rays, going 1 for 3 in his first big league stint. And now, it’s gotten to the point where people like me are discussing whether Canzler will be the next Rays’ starting first baseman. What an improbable turn of events! But, more importantly, will it happen? Will Canzler actually win the Rays’ starting first base job- and keep it?
Well there are a bunch of scenario’s where Canzler will not be the Rays’ first baseman at least to begin 2012:
a) Stu Sternberg or Joe Maddon wins the Mega Millions Jackpot and the Rays use the money to sign Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder (or win a more minor lottery and use the money to sign Carlos Pena).
b) Even the Pirates et all know enough about baseball statistics that Kotchman is unlikely to come anywhere near repeating his 2011 season and the Rays are able to re-sign Kotchman for a couple million dollars.
c) The Rays decide to use Sean Rodriguez as their starting first baseman, making Rodriguez the most execrably-suited first baseman in the history of major league baseball.
d) The Rays think highly enough of Brandon Guyer, who mashed at Durham along with Canzler, that they give Guyer the starting right field job and move Matt Joyce to first base.
e) The Rays trade somebody (Upton, Shields, Davis, or Niemann) and receive a big league ready first baseman in return.
The only scenario that’s truly realistic is b). Sternberg and Maddon have as much of a chance of winning the lottery as anyone in America. The Rays know they’re in trouble if they have three middle infielders in the lineup. I really like Guyer, but he’s not about to move Joyce to first base. And unless the Rays complete a Shields trade with the Reds for Yonder Alonso, they’re not about to get a big league ready first baseman in a trade. Maybe the market for Kotchman will not come into existence, but even that’s probably a less than 50% chance that some team doesn’t offer him a deal out of the Rays’ price range. So that leaves Canzler.
Fine, Canzler appears to be the Rays’ best option at first base at the moment. But is he a good enough player to a starting first baseman for a contending team? Well, let’s address possible issues. First of all, people have been doubting Canzler’s power and have been saying that it’s not enough for him to be anywhere near a prototypical first baseman. I disagree with that. If you want to look at an atypical first baseman, look no further than Kotchman. Kotchman has never hit more than 14 home runs any year in the big leagues, and his minor league career-high in homers was 10. Canzler hit 21 homers in 2010 and 18 homers this past season, so his power is certainly existent, and he could be a 20-25 homer candidate in the big leagues. But what about Canzler’s all-around hitting ability. Canzler had an incredible season in 2011, but as I have mentioned before, Canzler had a crazy-high .396 BAbip in 2011. But Scout.com’s John Gregg stated the statistic that 23.3% of Canzler’s batted balls in 2011 were line drives, well above the IL average of 17.5%, and that’s certainly something nice to see. Just as important as the line drive percentage is the fact that 41.6% of Canzler’s hits in 2011 went for extra bases. There are different types of line drives- line drive singles, line drive doubles and triples, and line drive home runs. It’s clear that a good proportion of Canzler’s hits were of the latter two categories. That would seem to suggest that Canzler is a legitimately good pure hitter, and if he could hit for power and at least somewhat for average while walking as much as he does (11.8% of his plate appearances the past two seasons, just 1 intentional walk), he will be at least a solid big league first baseman, and possibly a pretty good one.
But now is when anyone who follows the Rays screams out that Dan Johnson was incredible at Triple-A and completely flopped when the Rays gave him the first base job. Why wouldn’t Canzler be any different? Well, it’s certainly a different case. Johnson was a Quad-A player for quite a while- Canzler just got to and conquered Triple-A. Canzler is also turning just 26 in April- he’s still pretty young. He’s actually a few months younger than Guyer, who is considered a perfectly legitimate prospect. Canzler also has no injury history whatsoever unlike Johnson. But how about actual tools? Well, it’s clear that Canzler has a good eye at the plate, makes an OK amount of contact, has some pretty good pop, and he’s a good pure hitter. But will any of those translate to the major leagues?
Well, something to look at is Canzler’s brief 5 plate appearance tenure in Tampa. I know that it was an incredibly small sample size, but watching him, I just felt like he was a major league hitter. He was shockingly comfortable for someone making his big league debut. Those 5 PA’s give me further confidence. I am confident that Canzler will be a productive big league hitter with the bat.
Defensively though, is another story. Canzler plays all over the field, but the only place where he makes enough plays on the balls hit to him to survive is left field. His .988 Fld% in 401 minor league games at first base is horrible. Hate Kotchman all you want, he’s a very good defensive first baseman (fun fact: for what it’s worth, Kotchman is baseball’s career leader in fielding percentage by a first baseman at .9982). Canzler is not that good by any stretch. It’s telling that the Rays like Canzler from the fact that they put him on the 40-man roster, but it’s also telling that they never put him in defensively during his big league stint. Canzler can play all 4 corner positions, but he can’t play any of them well.
The easiest scenario for the Rays would be to teach Matt Joyce first base. He’s pretty athletic and I’m sure that in time he would be fine and possibly even adept at the positon. That would allow them to give at-bats to both Brandon Guyer and Canzler, with Guyer playing right field when Joyce moves to first base and Canzler DHing, and then Canzler could get some games in at first base and right field and third base when Evan Longoria in addition to being the Rays primary DH. Canzler is simply not good enough defensively to be a big league first baseman for the Rays. I think Canzler’s upside as a Rays player is a utilityman who gets in the lineup every day because of his bat. Don’t be surprised if Canzler gets into 130 games for the Rays in 2011 and hits well. But bringing Casey Kotchman back or getting some other first baseman via a trade is a good idea for the Rays. In an organization that places such a high value on defense, Canzler just does not meet the standards to be the every day first baseman. So will Canzler be a productive part of the Rays’ lineup in 2012? I think so. But starting first baseman? No.
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