Less than a week after the pitcher formerly known as Fausto Carmona was placed on the restricted list, the Cleveland Indians have given away his roster spot: on Tuesday, the Tribe acquired infielder and outfielder Russ Canzler from the Tampa Bay Rays for cash considerations.
Canzler, who turns 26 in April, isn’t a particularly exciting name. He was a 30th-round pick in the 2004 amateur draft, and after eight seasons of professional baseball he’s appeared in only three MLB games. And he still has options remaining, so the Indians won’t risk anything if they decide to keep him in the minors.
But Canzler’s low profile doesn’t mean he won’t be a useful piece. In fact, he could very well be the answer to the Tribe’s first-base problems.
It stands to reason that what Canzler did in 2011 is the best information we have as we look towards 2012—and those numbers look good. In 131 games at Triple-A Durham, he hit .314/.401/530 with 18 homers and 83 RBI. He showed very good power (.216 ISO) and terrific plate discipline (12 percent walk rate), and FanGraphs put him at a 157 wRC+.
Of course, you can’t take those numbers at face value when projecting how he would perform in the majors, but luckily Jeff Sackmann’s Minor League Equivalency Calculator takes care of that. Converting the run environment in Triple-A to that of Progressive Field, Sackmann’s calculator puts him at .271/.346/.444 in the majors; over 162 games he’d also be on pace for 17 homers and 79 RBI. And that’s assuming he doesn’t get better at age 26, which he probably will.
Plugging those numbers into the Simple WAR Calculator, we get a 113 wRC+ for Canzler—clearly above average for an MLB hitter. More importantly, assuming he’s an adequate baserunner (he stole five bases last year) and plays subpar but not awful defense at first base (he won’t win a Gold Glove, but scouting consensus seems to be that he isn’t a complete sieve), our calculator projects him for 1.0 wins above replacement over 162 games.
Throw in some bonus points for the calculator’s slight underestimation bias and project some improvement as he nears his prime, and Canzler probably comes out closer to 2.0 WAR—i.e., roughly a league-average player.
Those might not look like huge numbers for a first baseman, but they represent a huge improvement over what the Indians had in 2011. Matt LaPorta was worth 0.8 wins below replacement last year in 107 games, putting him on pace for -1.2 WAR over a full season. Looking at those numbers, even if we project some improvement for LaPorta, the Indians will probably win two or three more games with Canzler than they would with LaPorta.
Two or three wins might not seem like much, especially since right now popular opinion is that the Tigers will win the AL Central by a lot more than that. But such an improvement is nothing to sneeze at. Think of it this way: that’s about the same as the difference between Victor Martinez and Prince Fielder. We don’t know yet how much cash Cleveland sent to the Rays in this deal, but it was definitely a lot less than the $214 million Detroit just gave Fielder.
Again, these projections all come with the usual caveat of uncertainty. Sackmann’s calculator is great, but that doesn’t mean Canzler specifically will be able to handle the pressure of the big leagues or make adjustments when pitchers figure him out. And there’s something to be said for the fact that the Rays—probably the best organization in baseball in terms of finding bargain players and handling young talent—were willing to let him go for nothing but a few dollars.
Nor am I saying Canzler should be handed the starting first base job outright. He should battle LaPorta and Shelley Duncan for it in spring training, and the Indians would still do well to bring in someone like Casey Kotchman (if he could be had cheaply) just in case.
Overall, it’s hard to see this deal as anything but a huge win for the Indians. Worst-case scenario, they lost a little bit of money. Best-case scenario, they just filled the biggest hole in their depth chart while giving up barely anything. With so little to lose and such a great potential reward, this was definitely a risk worth taking. Great move by Chris Antonetti & Co. to trade virtually nothing for a very tangible something.