Following in the footsteps of Brandon Allen and Brandon Belt, it is time to free another minor league first baseman with outstanding numbers. Although he does not have the prospect pedigree of Belt – or even Allen for that matter- Russ Canzler has quietly been one of the most productive minor-league hitters over the past two seasons without a big league at-bat to his credit. In fact, Canzler, who is younger than Allen, has hit .280/.350/.470 in over 2,400 minor-league plate appearances spanning eight seasons.
Last season, Canzler really broke out at the Double-A level as a member of the Chicago Cubs organization. In 2010, he bashed Southern League pitching to the tune of .287/.372/.556 with 53 extra-base hits in slightly more than 400 plate appearances. He left the Cubs as a free agent this offseason and found a job with the Tampa Bay Rays.
Beyond sharing a hometown with Rays manager Joe Maddon (Hazelton, PA), Tampa Bay offered Canzler ample playing time at the Triple-A level with openings at all of the four corner positions (first base, third base, left field, right field). He has responded with a slash line of .320/.405/.548, and this weekend he hit a pair of doubles to give him 56 extra-base hits in 110 games while logging time at all four positions listed above. On the surface, his numbers are propped up by a BABIP near .400; but he continues to show good extra-base power and has pushed his walk rate over 12% as a member of the Durham Bulls.
While Canzler is not a threat to Evan Longoria for playing time at third base – nor does he have much of a future in a well-covered Tampa Bay outfield – his right-handed bat does have value to the big league roster. As it stands, the Rays have few bench options from the right-handed batter’s box. Switch-hitting infielder Elliot Johnson, and the team’s backup catcher of the day, serve as Maddon’s only bench alternatives from that side.
Canzler provides value not only as a pinch-hitter, but could be used as a platoon player at either first base or designated hitter. Joe Pawlikowski covered Casey Kotchman’s career year recently. Part of Kotchman’s renaissance this season includes a passible .315/344/.391 line against lefties compared to his .265/.320/.358 career numbers. Even if you want to believe in Kotchman’s bat and keep his glove in the lineup full-time, the Rays have no backup to him on the roster (Kotchman has started every game since June 4th).
Canzler could also see time at DH against left-handed pitchers. Johnny Damon, who recently cleared waivers, is not part of the long-term plans in Tampa Bay. Overall, Damon is hitting just .261/.315/.395 this season. He remains to be a relatively neutral hitter; his current .309 wOBA vs. southpaws, however, should not block a potential chance to upgrade. With the obligatory minor-league grain of salt taken, Canzler has torched lefties, hitting .330/.403/.536 this season.
At age 25, Canzler could be considered a fringe prospect. Because of his service time in the minors, he is once again eligible for free agency at the end of the season if the Rays do not add him to the 40-man roster. With both Kotchman and Damon on one-year deals, Tampa Bay should take the next six weeks to take a look at Canzler, who could replace either – or at least platoon in their place – in 2012.
When you consider the following: his age, production, contract status, the contract status of others relative to his position(s), and needs of the 25-man roster, Russ Canzler should be free. Even if he never amounts to anything more than an organizational soldier, there is little to lose in this situation. For a club that prides itself on finding cheap, valuable assets as much as the Rays do, it would be an exercise in futility to have him walk away without a sip of coffee with the big league club.