Super Bowl Sunday Brew: A Sleeper in Russ Canzler?

With the New England Patriots representing the AFC in the Super Bowl with 18 (!) undrafted free agents on their roster, I have decided to take the next three Sundays to analyze some Tribe offseaon aquisitions. I have decided to focus on the moves that might not have been a newsworthy headline splash, but those that could mean the Indians will be playing in October. 

Russ Canzler, the 2011 International League MVP, figured to play at Triple-A Durham again next year after the Tampa Bay Rays signed Luke Scott to DH and Carlos Pena to play first base. But the Indians picked him up for cash after Tampa DFA’d Canzler, adding right-handed punch to a lefty-laden club.

So, Canzler, who will turn 26 in April, has the chance to free himself from the infamous lable of the “Quad-A” label. His power is impressive, he may well be the Tribe’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.

However, his fortunes began to change upon a mid-May promotion to the Double-A Southern League. During the rest of 2009 and in 2010, Canzler hit .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 Rever Plouffe and Denis Phipps (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?

First question on the list 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 the Prog 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. That puts a big burden on his secondary skills, which are good but hardly star-level.

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 Columbus.

(all stats courtesy of Baseball Prospectus)

Russ Canzler

( photo courtesy of

Mike Melaragno

About Mike Melaragno

A 2010 graduate of Lee University, Mike loves writes about the game he loves most-- baseball. From an early age, he learned to live and die with the Tribe-- mostly die. Died a little when they lost the 1997 World Series in extra innings; died a lot when they were one game away from advancing to the fall classic in 2007 but fell to the Red Sox in game seven of the ALCS. He currently resides in Northeast Ohio.