Mark Canha: Free (More or Less) To a Good Home

Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

In the five days between the World Series and the start of free agency, there’s plenty of paperwork to do — exercising or declining options, sorting out 40-man roster spots, that sort of thing — before a team starts the offseason in earnest. Sometimes, that shuffling reveals a landing spot for a player who was going to be turned loose anyway, and we get a trade.

Mark Canha, your friendly neighborhood on-base machine, is headed from Milwaukee to Detroit, with 25-year-old Double-A reliever Blake Holub headed in the opposite direction.

Canha is getting into his mid-30s, but he’s still a very good player. He hit .262/.355/.400 last season (a 111 wRC+), including .287/.373/.427 (120 wRC+) in 50 games after being traded to the Brewers at the deadline. He doesn’t have ideal power for a corner outfielder, but he can take a walk and wears a pitch as well as anyone in the league. Canha got plunked 17 times this past year, and has been hit 72 times in the past three seasons, which is second-most in baseball. That works out to a .360 OBP since 2021, which is in the top 10% of qualified hitters.

Milwaukee parted with minor league pitcher Justin Jarvis in order to acquire Canha, but apparently did not find his $11.5 million team option to be worth picking up. Even with Canha’s age, unremarkable power and defense, he does the most important thing a hitter can do — get on base — very well, enough to make him more or less an average big leaguer overall. And in this day and age, $11.5 million over one year is not that much to pay for a player of his talents.

Nevertheless, the Brewers were about to let him go, for two reasons. The first is that outfield is a position of relative strength for Milwaukee, at least relatively speaking. This comparison is more amusing than probative, but here’s how Canha stacks up against Christian Yelich the past three seasons:

We Have Mark Canha at Home
Name G PA HR R RBI BB% K% AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+ WAR
Christian Yelich 415 1778 42 275 184 13.3% 23.3% .260 .362 .404 .336 112 7.9
Mark Canha 420 1674 41 215 184 10.4% 18.2% .252 .360 .396 .336 118 7.3
2021-2023 Seasons

The Brewers also want to give at-bats to their younger outfielders in 2024: Sal Frelick, Joey Wiemer, and Garrett Mitchell. Is Canha better than at least some of those guys? Yes. Should there still be a spot for him on Milwaukee’s roster, given that he can also play first base, and Rowdy Tellez is a left-handed hitter with a big platoon split? Also yes. For that matter, it wouldn’t be a huge shock if the Brewers non-tendered Tellez in the next couple weeks, which would leave first base more or less open.

But while $11.5 million isn’t that much money for a normal contender, it represents about 9% of what the Brewers spent on payroll last year. That’s a lot for a pretty good player at a position where younger, cheaper options are available internally.

Holub, who is definitely a player you heard of before this trade, was an honorable mention on Eric Longenhagen’s Tigers prospect list back in May. The Tigers made him a 15th round in pick in 2021 out of St. Edward’s University, a Division II school in Texas, and like most Texan pitchers, Holub is large (6-foot-6, 230 pounds), right-handed, and has an intriguing fastball. Eric reports Holub’s heater at 93-96 mph with plus-plus life, with a vertically oriented slider that pairs well with the fastball in theory but underwhelms when considered in insolation. Holub will also not require a 40-man roster spot until next year.

This isn’t a good enough return to offset losing Jarvis to acquire Canha in the first place, but if Holub can improve his slider, he could be a useful big league reliever. The Brewers have a good track record of developing pitchers over the past few years, especially relievers.

More than that, getting Holub back is better than letting Canha walk for nothing, which was apparently the alternative. When news of this trade broke, the first place my mind went was to a similar deal Detroit made in the summer of 2022. Not the Tigers, to be clear, Detroit.

It’s been a while since I shoehorned a hockey reference into a column, so please consider Ville Husso. In the 2021-22 season, Husso was a 26-year-old second-year backup goalie with the St. Louis Blues. Husso won the starting job halfway through the year and managed to get into 40 games, but thanks to the NHL’s far superior free agent rules, he was due for unrestricted free agency at season’s end. St. Louis, with longstanding starter Jordan Binnington locked down to a long-term contract, couldn’t afford to keep Husso as well, so they traded him to the Red Wings at the draft (which kicks off the NHL offseason) for a third-round pick.

St. Louis got something back for a player who was about to walk for nothing, and the Red Wings were able to land an exclusive negotiating window with a coveted free agent, and sure enough they signed Husso to a three-year extension the same day. This kind of thing happens all the time in hockey, the trade of token draft picks for would-be free agents, and Canha’s team option put him in the same situation, somewhat unusually for a baseball player.

Why would the Tigers give up a prospect, even a fringy one, in order to secure Canha’s services when they could’ve waited a week and signed him for free after Milwaukee declined his option? Well, there’s all that stuff I said before about him being a valuable hitter on a reasonable deal. And in contrast to Milwaukee, the Tigers are a better fit.

With the retirement of Miguel Cabrera, Detroit basically had no ironclad contract commitments for 2024 apart from Javier Báez. Riley Greene and Kerry Carpenter were bright spots for Detroit last year, but after that the outfield depth chart gets really bleak really quickly. The only player I’d worry about Canha blocking or replacing is Matt Vierling, but first of all, Vierling can play all over the place. And second — and I say this as a big Matt Vierling fan — he’s not the kind of player you worry about blocking if you care about winning.

Not a lot of what the Tigers have done over the past few years makes sense to me, and their lineup still has as many holes as answers. But believe it or not, Detroit finished second in the AL Central this past season, thanks to a season-ending 19-10 run. Spencer Torkelson hit 19 second-half home runs. Casey Mize will be back from Tommy John surgery at the start of 2024. Tarik Skubal is finally healthy and pitching well. Matt Manning had a promising 2023 as well, provided he can stop taking line drives off the foot. If that long-hyped trio can finally put it all together at the same time, that makes the loss of Eduardo Rodriguez, who opted out of his deal over the weekend, easier to swallow. Besides, the Tigers could put the three years and $49 million they no longer owe E-Rod to use patching the hole he leaves in the rotation.

Plus — and perhaps you inferred this from the fact that 78-84 was good enough for second place, but I’ll state it directly just in case — the AL Central is there for the taking. You can start to see a path for the Tigers, if you want it.

Does adding Canha make Detroit an automatic contender? Of course not. But he’s a legitimate leadoff hitter on a reasonable one-year deal, and the Tigers were able to get him for basically nothing. That’s a solid day at the office.





Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic, ESPN.com, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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Charley Baseballmember
3 months ago

May I propose re-titling this article to “If you want him, you Canha-ve him”?

Last edited 3 months ago by Charley Baseball
Browns0286member
3 months ago

Brilliant. A+

kidrobot
3 months ago

Has any player got their post-baseball career so easily planned out? Surely he’s opening a fishing bait shop called Canha Worms.

Last edited 3 months ago by kidrobot
Brian Reinhartmember
3 months ago
Reply to  kidrobot

I’d drink a Canha Beer

Sleepy
3 months ago
Reply to  Brian Reinhart

I’m drinking a Canha beer right now!

PC1970
3 months ago
Reply to  Sleepy

guys, don’t upset him or he’ll have to open up a Canha whoop ass!