SweetSpot: Russ Canzler

The Cleveland Indians once traded CC Sabathia to acquire Matt LaPorta.

They picked up Russ Canzler for cash.

When the 2012 season opens, it's likely that Canzler will be the team's starting first baseman ahead of LaPorta.

Canzler is a soon-to-be 26-year-old minor league vet who lacks the prospect pedigree of LaPorta, but he's turned himself into a guy who should be able to contribute at the big league level after hitting .314/.401/.530 at Triple-A Durham. Among International League players with 200 plate appearances, only Trevor Plouffe and Ryan Lavarnway had a higher OPS. Canzler played first, third, left and right for Durham, although his fielding percentage indicates he's stretched at third base. But with LaPorta coming off another disappointing season (.247/.299/.412), I would guess Canzler will be given the opportunity to win the first-base job. (A platoon isn't really feasible since both hit right-handed.)

I actually thought Canzler would be a nice platoon with Carlos Pena in Tampa, considering Pena hit .133 against left-handers in 2011. But the Jeff Keppinger signing made it tough to find room for Canzler on the roster.

Assuming the Rays go with 12 pitchers, their 13 position players probably look like this:

C: Jose Molina (R), Jose Lobaton (S) or Robinson Chirinos (R)
1B: Carlos Pena (L)
2B: Ben Zobrist (S), Jeff Keppinger (R)
3B: Evan Longoria (R)
SS: Sean Rodriguez (R), Reid Brignac (L) or Elliot Johnson (S)
OF: Matt Joyce (L), B.J. Upton (R), Desmond Jennings (R), Luke Scott (L), Sam Fuld (L) or Brandon Guyer (R)

If Joe Maddon wants to platoon with Joyce, he can slide Zobrist to right field and play Keppinger at second. That would probably give Fuld the edge over Guyer for the fourth outfield position, since he could spell Jennings against tough right-handers. The other option would be keep Guyer as a possible platoon partner for Joyce (or Scott at DH) and use Keppinger at first base against right-handers. And yet another option is to see if Brignac can win the starting shortstop job on a full-time basis, with Rodriguez serving as the starter at shortstop or first base against left-handers (over his career, he's hit .260/.360/.422 against left-handers but just .212/.278/.377 against righties). Brignac and Johnson are both regarded as superior fielders to Rodriguez, so if Brignac can at least hit like he did in 2010 (.256/.307/.385), the job will be his to win.

Anyway, as always Maddon has roster flexibility. I don't like the idea of Pena as a full-time first baseman, but it looks like the Rays will have options to ensure that he doesn't have to play every day against left-handers.

The Tampa Bay Rays dug through their pockets for spare nickels, took their metal detector to the Florida beaches, maybe auctioned off Dan Johnson's home run ball and somehow came up with $7.5 million to sign free-agent first baseman Carlos Pena.

I love it.

Pena brings a power bat to the middle of the Tampa Bay order and while he doesn't come without risk, the addition of a guy who can hit 25 to 30 home runs, draw 90 walks and play a good first base helps solidify a lineup that needed another big bat. Here's a look at what Tampa's lineup may look like:

LF Desmond Jennings
CF B.J. Upton
2B Ben Zobrist
3B Evan Longoria
RF Matt Joyce/Brandon Guyer
1B Carlos Pena/Russ Canzler
DH Luke Scott
SS Sean Rodriguez/Reid Brignac
C Jose Molina

Other bench options include Sam Fuld, Elliot Johnson, Justin Ruggiano plus a backup catcher. I included Guyer and Canzler in the lineups because I believe Joe Maddon will have to maximize the versatility to get the most out of this roster.

With Pena, that includes the suggestion that he become a platoon player. His overall line in 2011 was dragged down by an anemic .133 average against left-handed pitching. But he hit .255/.388/.504 against right-handers. Even with the poor splits against his lefties, his overall .357 on-base percentage would have ranked second on the Rays in 2011, behind only the now-departed first baseman Casey Kotchman. Minor league veteran Canzler would be a nice, cheap platoon for Pena. He hit .314/.401/.530 at Triple-A Durham, but the key is he's not just a first baseman: He played third, right, left and first for the Bulls. In other words, a perfect Maddon bench player.

Like Pena, Joyce probably needs to be platooned; he has an .867 career OPS against righties but .601 against lefties (.657 in 2011 in 101 plate appearances). But Guyer provides another nice platoon option. Like Canzler, he's an older minor leaguer, but he can hit, .312/.384/.521 at Durham, including .346 against lefties. Most managers are averse to using platoons these days because their benches are already limited due to the desire to carry 12 or 13 pitchers. But Maddon has been using multi-position platoons for years in Tampa; it's just another reason he's the best manager in the game today.

There is a risk with Pena. He hit 28 home runs in 2011 playing in hitter-friendly Wrigley Field; he'll move to a tougher home run park at the Trop. Pena, however, did hit much better on the road in 2011 (.855 OPS versus .780) and if you look at his home run distances at Hit Tracker Online, Pena doesn't hit many cheap home runs. When he connects it's going out of just about any ballpark. Of his 28 bombs, only two were classified as "just enough."

As for Kotchman, I would think he'll find a job somewhere after hitting .306 with a .378 OBP. But that's no guarantee; despite those numbers, Rays first basemen (Kotchman played 146 games) finished last in the majors in both runs scored (52) and RBIs (51). The Indians remain the only team with an obvious first-base opening as they don't appear committed to Matt LaPorta; maybe the Yankees or Tigers consider him for a DH role.

The Rays may have been waiting to see if Pena or Kotchman fell to them, but I think they signed the better player. If Pena and Scott can combine for 45 to 50 home runs (the Rays got just 28 out of first base and DH in 2011) this is a lineup that will outscore last season's total of 707 runs.

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