Recent moves help Tribe fortify first base
Kotchman, Canzler shore up spot on Indians' offseason wish list
Entering the offseason, the Indians' front office set improving their offense among their top priorities. Specifically, adding production from the first-base position was said to be an important objective.
They are now much closer to that goal.
Prior to his becoming a free agent, the Indians traded pitcher CC Sabathia to the Milwaukee Brewers in July 2008. In return, the club received a group of prospects it hoped would lead the team's future. The centerpiece was right-handed hitter Matt LaPorta, the Brewers' first-round selection in the 2007 First-Year Player Draft. The Indians also received right-handed pitcher Rob Bryson, left-handed pitcher Zach Jackson and outfielder Michael Brantley in the deal.
With LaPorta drafted as an outfielder by Milwaukee, the Indians introduced him to first base during his 2009 season at Triple-A Columbus.
As the decade was coming to an end, the Indians had a need to fortify their right-handed-hitting options. LaPorta's power potential was viewed as a way to strengthen the team on a long-term basis. He was seen as a player who could balance an overwhelmingly left-handed-hitting lineup. The Indians looked to LaPorta to become the power hitter they desperately needed. Beginning with limited Major League playing time at first base in '09, LaPorta has spent the last two seasons as the "on again, off again" first baseman for the Tribe.
The results have been strikingly mediocre. Last season, LaPorta hit .247, with 11 home runs and 53 RBIs in 385 plate appearances. His inconsistent production has led the Tribe to seek out competition for the struggling youngster. While he may still be in the mix at first base, the Indians have bolstered their roster with two very significant transactions.
Russ Canzler, who will turn 26 years old in April, was drafted by the Cubs in 2004. The 6-foot-2, 220 pound right-handed-hitting Canzler joined the Rays last season after becoming a six-year free agent. Canzler became the International League's Most Valuable Player after hitting .314, with 18 home runs and 83 RBIs, at Triple-A Durham. He also stroked an impressive 40 doubles. Canzler received a late-season callup to the Rays, and played in three games -- getting one hit in five plate appearances.
When the Rays obtained utility infielder Jeff Keppinger in January, the club designated Canzler for assignment.
The Indians quickly stepped forward, purchasing Canzler on Jan. 31, and immediately placing him on their 40-man roster. Canzler will be in Spring Training with the club, and has a chance to make the Major League team.
Scouts view Canzler as a hitter with a short, measured swing. He has quick hands through the ball, but doesn't always make good contact. A versatile, yet unproven, defender, Canzler can play all four corner infield and outfield positions. Because he hits right-handed, he is best suited as a first baseman for Cleveland -- if he shows he can hit.
Given their own first-base deficiencies, some wonder how the Rays could afford to lose Canzler. It's a fair question. However, decisions of club personnel often depend upon circumstances and plans known only within the organization. Transactions are made for a reason. One need only review Boston's trade for pitcher Larry Andersen on Aug. 30, 1990, to understand that transactions don't always work out. The Red Sox traded Jeff Bagwell to Houston to add pitching depth. Andersen pitched in 15 games for Boston in 1990, before being granted free agency and moving to the Padres in December that year. Bagwell went on to play 15 seasons for Houston, compiling a .297 lifetime batting average while hitting 449 career home runs.
Is Canzler another Bagwell? Probably not. But Tampa Bay had a reason for cutting him loose, and the Indians had a reason for offering him an opportunity. Canzler adds to the Tribe's options at first base -- providing another potential right-handed bat for the lineup.
Some players develop later in their professional careers. While I'm not suggesting Canzler is a late bloomer like Jose Bautista or Nelson Cruz, I am suggesting that there are times players need a sustained opportunity to see quality pitching before they realize their full potential. Cleveland hopes to catch more than fireflies in a bottle -- it's in search of lightning.
Shortly after acquiring Canzler, the Indians made an even more significant move. They signed free-agent first baseman Casey Kotchman to a one-year deal.
Kotchman, a left-handed hitter who was originally selected by the Angels in the first round of the 2001 First-Year Player Draft, had a very good season in 2011 playing for Tampa Bay. He hit .306, with 10 home runs and 48 RBIs. More significantly, he struck out only 66 times in 563 plate appearances, while walking 48 times.
Only 28, Kotchman offers more than contact hitting to the Indians. He's a very good defensive first baseman, a quality that will greatly benefit sinkerball pitchers like Justin Masterson, Josh Tomlin, and Derek Lowe.
Prior to last season, Kotchman sought help for a persistent "blurred eye" condition. In a series of four monthly procedures, Kotchman had both tear ducts cleaned and his eyesight restored. He credits his improved vision as one of the reasons for his improvement at the plate last season. While he doesn't figure to hit the ball out of the park very often, Kotchman could offer some key offense to a club with an admitted hole in the middle of its lineup. Kotchman becomes especially important if LaPorta does not hit with authority and win the first-base job in Spring Training.
Of all the options at first base, the best power hitter has proven to be Carlos Santana. Santana's switch-hitting pop makes his presence in the lineup crucial.
Santana hit 27 homers last season, while batting .239. He played 66 games at first base, and 95 behind the plate. If need be, Santana can return to first base as part of a platoon this coming season. He hit left-handed pitching at a .282 clip, making a timeshare with Kotchman a real possibility. That would leave the weaker hitting Lou Marson as the catcher against left-handed pitching.
Santana is not a great target as a 5-foot-11 first baseman. He is still learning how to play the position, but is at least an average defender. With most pitchers being right-handed, the Indians' defense will be much better with Kotchman getting most of the playing time at first base.
The additions of Canzler and Kotchman make the Indians' outlook at first much brighter. They offer competition for LaPorta, as well as stability -- with Kotchman's defensive ability and contact hitting, and Canzler's right-handed bat. It's a first-base mix that got significantly deeper and stronger in just a few short weeks.
Bernie Pleskoff has served as a professional scout for the Houston Astros and Seattle Mariners. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.