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Know Your 40: Russ Canzler

Wanted: Righthanded-hitting threat off the bench. Solution: Russ 2.0?

"Chris Sale's hopes for a win just got... Canzled." /puts on shades/ "YEAHHHHHHH."
"Chris Sale's hopes for a win just got... Canzled." /puts on shades/ "YEAHHHHHHH."
Rob Grabowski-US PRESSWIRE

Name: Russ Canzler
Position: First base/Left field/Right field/Third base
Bats: Right Throws: Right
Age as of Opening Day 2013: 26 (born 4/11/1986)
Height: 6’2" Weight: 220 lbs.
Remaining Contract: Pre-arbitration, under team control
2012 statistics: (AAA-Columbus) 130 games, 539 PA, .265/.328/.487, 36 2B, 22 HR, .361 wOBA, 124 wRC+
(MLB-Cleveland) 26 games, 97 PA, .269/.299/.398, 3 2B, 3 HR, .300 wOBA, 90 wRC+

Russ Canzler is the newest addition to the New York Yankees’ 40-man roster, as they claimed him off waivers from the Cleveland Indians on January 4th. He is another option for the team entering Spring Training as the Yanks continue their search for the right-handed threat off the bench that they lacked last year when Andruw Jones lost his touch from 2011. Although he will be 27 for the majority of the 2013 campaign and only has a combined two months of MLB service time over two years, there certainly is some possibility that he could make a name for himself and prove himself useful to the Yankees this upcoming season.

The right-handed hitter was a late-round draft pick out of Hazleton High School in Pennsylvania by the Chicago Cubs in 2004, selected in a 30th round that included luminaries like Issael Gonzalez and Jonathan Lindenberger (also St. Louis Cardinals starter Jaime Garcia, who did not sign with his drafting team, the Baltimore Orioles). It took Canzler a pair of seasons to get out of Rookie Ball. In his first year, he struggled both at the plate (.248/.310/.352) and in the field (11 errors in 55 chances at his original position of third base), but he moved across the diamond to first and played much better there while improving to a .299/.387/.427 triple slash.

Canzler blew past short-season A-ball with Boise in ’06 thanks to a .383 wOBA and 138 wRC+, and after an off-year in ’07 at Low-A, he spent awhile further developing within the Cubs’ system. It took him a pair of seasons to master Double-A pitching, but when he did, he ran roughshod over the league with a .287/.372/.566 batting line with 21 homers, a. 414 wOBA, and a 152 wRC+. Canzler also returned to third for the majority of his playing time and even though he was no Brooks Robinson, he was better than he had been in Rookie Ball. According to FanGraphs, he did benefit from a great park for right-handed hitters, but they were good enough to impress the Tampa Bay Rays and fellow Hazleton native Joe Maddon.

When Canzler and the Cubs parted ways after the season, the Rays picked him up and he had a monster 2011 with Triple-A Durham. He went on to win the International League MVP by hitting .314/.401/.530 with 40 doubles, 18 homers, a .410 wOBA, and a 157 wRC+. Canzler also added "outfielder" to his repertoire (somewhat), as he divided his time up in the field fairly evenly—41 games in right, 40 at third, 33 in left, and 17 at first. The performance was enough to earn him his major-league debut, and he actually got his first hit in "The Show" at Yankee Stadium during a 15-8 blowout.

The Indians decided they liked Canzler, so they purchased him from the Rays prior to the 2012 season. However, instead of getting a shot with the Indians ahead of unimpressive competition like Jack Hannahan, Shelley Duncan, a disappointing Casey Kotchman, and the AARP edition of Johnny Damon, Canzler spent almost the whole year with Triple-A Columbus. Although his statistics weren’t quite up to snuff with his previous season, they were still good for that level and got him a September call-up to Cleveland. Given the opportunity to start most of the games with the Indians far out of the race, Canzler was only okay, but he appeared to be quite the platoon man. In albeit a small sample size, Canzler hit .215/.250/.277 against righties in 68 plate appearances, and .393/.414/.679 against lefties in 29 plate appearances. Even a Cy Young-contending southpaw like Chris Sale fell victim to Canzler on one particularly good swing:

Canzler spent the holiday season bouncing around on waiver claims between the Indians and the Toronto Blue Jays, but he ended up in the Yankees’ hands. The Yanks added him to the 40-man roster and will likely give him a shot to win a bench job in Spring Training. Like many candidates for the bench, Canzler undoubtedly has his flaws—he’s not young, his positional versatility is undermined by underwhelming fielding, he often strikes out (22.3 K% since hitting Double-A), and he has not hit righties well. Two recent names in Yankee fan memory should help serve as counterpoints though—Chris Dickerson and Justin Maxwell (coincidentally, Dickerson was designated for assignment to make room for Canzler).

Last year in Spring Training, some fans were calling for Dickerson or Maxwell to receive a place on the 25-man roster as a reserve outfielder. They were outfielders in their late-twenties who had concerning platoon splits and struck out a lot. They were better in the field than Canzler, but they also could not play infield (Eric Hinske would be the first to say that one does not have to be great in the field to be a useful utilityman). Maxwell proved his worth when he went on to hit 18 homers with a 107 wRC+ in Houston last year. Dickerson played well in limited time last year with the Yankees, and there were definitely grumblings when he was consistently ignored as an option off the bench and eventually cut in favor of Canzler. If fans could make a case that Dickerson or Maxwell deserved spots on the club, then why not Zoidberg Canzler?

Canzler is by no means a player that is likely to make a huge difference on the Yankees in 2013. That does not mean that he is a pointless addition to the 40-man roster though; if his cup of coffee against big-league southpaws was legitimate, then Canzler could be a fine complementary piece to the bench. Since the outfield at present is all lefties in the trio of Brett Gardner, Curtis Granderson, and Ichiro Suzuki, then it is certainly plausible to envision a situation wherein Joe Girardi would want to add a righty outfielder into the lineup against a lefty every now and then. If they find someone better than Canzler to fill that role or are unimpressed with him, then they can cut him or he can spend the season adding depth to the organization in Triple-A Scranton. It is far from a travesty to have him on the 40-man roster.

Update: Well, that didn't last long. Canzler has been designated for assignment to make room for Travis Hafner. We hardly knew ye, Russ. He was claimed off waivers by the Baltimore Orioles on February 4th.