Russ Canzler has nothing left to prove in the minor leagues. Coming off a year where he was named the International League's MVP, the 25 year old may finally get his opportunity to prove himself in the Major Leagues. With the exodus of Casey Kotchman and Dan Johnson, Canzler is the only player with any significant playing time at first base on the 40 Man Roster. While the off-season has only just begun, and a move could certainly be made through free agency or trade, at this point you have to pencil Canzler's name in at the top spot on the depth chart.
Hailing from Hazelton, PA, the same hometown as Rays' manager Joe Maddon, Canzler enjoyed a terrific season for the Durham Bulls in 2011. He hit .314 with a .401 on base percentage, and recorded 62 extra base hits and 83 runs batted in. He did so in his first year in AAA and while playing five different defensive positions (1B, 3B, RF, LF & DH).
For his minor league career, Canzler is a lifetime .280 hitter, and his sensational 2011 should at the very least earn him a very long look in Spring Training. But there are some reasons to believe that his bat may not translate to the Major Leagues.
For starters, his BABIP (batting average on balls in play) was an unsustainable .396. This is a full 60 points higher than his previous high of .333 in 2009 when he had a .270 batting average. His BABIP was second in the organization only to the VSL Rays' Oscar Hernandez for player's with at least 200 plate appearances. He did have a very good line drive percentage of 23.3 percent, but Canzler was clearly the beneficiary of some pretty good luck in 2011.
His strikeout percentage was also career high 23.5 percent, a number that put him in the top 20 in the International League. If you take the high strike out rate and the high BABIP and add them together, you get a better picture of what kind of hitter Canzler is, and his 2011 season gains a little perspective.
In 2010 Dan Johnson had a monster year of his own in Durham, hitting .303 with 30 home runs and 95 runs batted in. His BABIP was .298, and his strikeout percentage was 16.7. This didn't translate well to the Major Leagues, and Johnson never had any long term success with the Rays. This doesn't necessarily mean that Canzler will struggle in the Majors, but there is evidence to suggest that his 2011 AAA season should be viewed cautiously.
There are some positive trends from Canzler though. He did show some consistency in his splits hitting .321 against lefties, and .312 against righties. His walk rate has also steadily increased each season since 2009. He hit well with runners in scoring position as well, driving in 65 runners in 143 at bats while hitting .329. Canzler clearly has some good skills at the plate, the question will be if they will translate to the next level.
Then there is the question of his defense.
He has been a man without a position for most of his minor league career. He has played 118 games at third, 201 in the outfield, and 401 at first. He owns a career .988 fielding percentage at first, compared to an .866 mark at third base. With Evan Longoria at third, and Desmond Jennings, Matt Joyce, Sam Fuld, and Brandon Guyer having the corner outfield spots covered, the best shot for playing time for Canzler is at first base or designated hitter.
Canzler has done enough to warrant a chance at winning a job in Spring Training. It remains to be seen if he will be competing for a spot as a utility player or a starter. The off-season will have to play out more before that question is answered.
Obviously the Rays won't be signing Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder, but there are some cheaper alternatives on the free agent market. There is also the starting pitching surplus that exists and there are plenty of pitching starved teams that could offer a young, high-ceiling first baseman.
Still, the Rays may be willing to fill the position with an internal option. If that's the case, then Canzler and Durham teammate Leslie Anderson are really the only two options in the upper levels of the organization currently.
Yet a third possibility would be inking an undervalued player to a minor league deal. This is an Andrew Friedman trick that has worked to perfection for the Rays several times. Carlos Pena and Casey Kotchman both came to the franchise in that way, and both turned out to be steals.
It is hard to say how the first base position will shake out. But if the Rays had to suit up and play a game today, Canzler would probably be playing there, and he could very well be playing there on Opening Day.
Only time will tell.
John Gregg is the Publisher and Senior Editor of Rays Digest. You can follow him on Twitter at @JohnRGregg or @RaysDigest. He can also be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.