There’s something strangely fitting about the fact that both Russ Canzler and Dan Johnson have found new homes in the last 24 hours. Canzler was traded yesterday from the Rays to the Indians for cash considerations, and Johnson signed a minor-league deal with the White Sox this afternoon. This is despite the fact that the Rays — those masters of market inefficiencies; those buy-low deal hounds — were recently searching for a first baseman, but decided to sign an aging Carlos Pena for $7 million rather than take a cheap gamble on either player.
On the surface, it looks odd that the Rays let Canzler go without giving him a try at first. After all, Canzler was named the International League (Triple-A) MVP last season after hitting 18 home runs and posting a .410 wOBA. He may have been slightly old for the league, but it’s not like he was pushing 30; Canzler was 25-years-old last season. So what gives? Did the Rays miss out on some cheap, high upside talent? Free Russ Canzler!
This discussion touches upon a larger debate, though: do Quad-A players exist? Can a player mash in Triple-A, but not be able to make the adjustments to be a successful player in the majors?
When I first got involved in the sabermetic community back in 2008, I used to believe that “Quad-A” players were a myth. Players like Dan Johnson, Russ Canzler, Brandon Allen, etc. had simply never been given a long enough chance to succeed and adjust in the majors. For whatever reason, teams were scared off of them based on scouting, while their numbers clearly pointed out that they were capable of contributing in the majors. At the risk of being overly broad, I think this was a popular saber-friendly stance at the time.
But times have changed. As Kevin Goldstein pointed out earlier this winter, there are some convincing reasons to believe that Quad-A players do exist. Some players may have the tools necessary to destroy Triple-A pitching, but due to their skill sets — poor defenders, unathletic, slow swings — they have a difficult time succeeding in the majors. When you think about it in the abstract, prospects fail in the minor leagues all the time; at some point, everyone hits their ceiling. Some players can succeed in Single-A, but then can’t make the jump to Double-A. Others can thrive in college, but can’t make the adjustment to pro ball. When looked at through this lens, it’s unrealistic to imagine that Quad-A players don’t exist at all. The trick is sorting out which prospects have hit their ceiling, and which ones need to be given more time to adjust.
When you dig deeper, Russ Canzler is far from perfect. Even the most optimistic scouting reports on him state that he’s a poor defensive player (even at third and first base), and many scouts question his bat speed and athleticism. These aren’t concerns that will show up in Triple-A stats, but they could make it difficult to translate successfully to the majors. If you can’t play defense and your bat speed makes it difficult to catch up to major league pitching, you’ll have a tough time hitting well enough to stick at first base in the majors.
Does this mean Canzler is doomed for failure in the majors? No, certainly not – there have been players with similar concerns that have adjusted to the majors (and one Dirk Hayhurst believes in him). But it does mean that Canzler’s odds of becoming a viable major-league first baseman are lower than his Triple-A stats lead us to believe. He could probably be a .320 wOBA, replacement-level first baseman right now in the majors, but the Rays need more than that if they’re going to make a run at the postseason yet again.
Rolling the dice on a “Quad-A” players is a fine strategy (and I’d like to see it happen more often), but let’s be careful not to overstate the certainty that players like Russ Canzler, Dan Johnson, or Brandon Allen will thrive. As both Johnson and Allen showed last season — albeit in small sample sizes — there’s normally a reason these players haven’t been “freed” before.