He’s by far the safest option, he’s the best fielder of the possible candidates, and perhaps most importantly the payroll-squeezed Indians wouldn’t have handed him a $3 million contract if they didn’t intend to let him earn it. Officially it will be a battle in spring training, but it’s definitely Kotchman’s job to lose.
Indeed, Kotchman probably is the best candidate for the job. After three years of scuffling in the big leagues, the Indians don’t have the luxury of waiting for former top prospect Matt LaPorta to figure out MLB pitching. Russ Canzler‘s minor-league numbers look promising, but the almost-26-year-old has only five big-league plate appearances in his career. Andy LaRoche and Jose Lopez are theoretically options, but based on their recent performances they’d probably be worse than LaPorta.
But that doesn’t mean Tribe fans should be rooting for Kotchman when he battles for playing time this spring. You always hope that the top player wins the job, but looking to the 2012 season, the Indians’ best-case scenario involves someone else being named the starting first baseman.
The distinction lies in the statistical concept of expected value. There’s a difference between the most likely scenario for each player—what we should use in our projections—and each of the candidates’ ceilings—i.e., what would happen if the Cleveland luck subsided and they all realized their full potential.
Kotchman’s a fine player. He’s got solid contact skills and plate discipline, and he’s widely recognized as a very good fielder. But barring a repeat of his uncharacteristically high and almost certainly luck-driven .335 BABIP from last year his ceiling is that of a roughly average MLB player.
Meanwhile, LaPorta still has the makings of a solid player somewhere inside him. If he can get his walk and strikeout rates to look more like the ones he posted in the minor leagues, he’ll be a serviceable first baseman. Throw some more power in there too and he could very well be an above-average player. Not to mention that more big-league experience will help him develop down the road.
And what of Canzler? He’s already somehow been labeled as a Quad-A player, but he’s never had a chance to fail in the big leagues. In 131 games with Triple-A Durham last year, he hit .314/.401/.530, showing strong plate discipline and power. Jeff Sackmann’s Minor League Equivalency Calculator converts that into a 271/.346/.444 triple-slash at Progressive Field. That’s definitely better than Kotchman’s average offensive production (though without his same level of defense), and at age 26 it stands to reason that he could still improve in 2012.
Odds are, Kotchman will be better than both LaPorta and Canzler in 2012—or at least, it will be close enough that Kotchman’s superior defense will make him the more valuable asset behind the Tribe’s groundball-heavy pitching staff. But both LaPorta and Canzler have higher ceilings than Kotchman, so if one of them plays well enough to win a starting job, it means he’ll be an improvement over what otherwise would have been.
Canzler is probably the better bet to surpass Kotchman; his performance in the high minors over the last couple years suggests that he has what it takes to hold his own in the majors. Given his former pedigree, LaPorta’s ceiling is probably higher than Canzler’s, but in light of his years-long slump I’d bet on Canzler outplaying LaPorta in 2012.
Either way, someone besides Kotchman winning the first base job would be optimal because it would (presumably) mean that whoever it was looked to be better than Kotchman. Kotchman will be a fine first baseman in the likely event that neither LaPorta nor Canzler looks good enough to take his place, but the Indians will surely be better off if a player with a higher ceiling steps up and wins the job.