Wednesday, February 2, 2011

What's The Deal With Barbaro Canizares?

Ever since I really started following Braves prospects a few years ago (instead of simply being aware of who the top up-and-comers were), the one player whose situation has puzzled me the most is 1B/DH Barbaro Canizares. The Cuban defector was signed by the Braves in early 2006 and has spent nearly his entire career in the team's minor league system.

Taking a look at some of his stats and accolades, without any preconceived thoughts, we see that Canizares put up a .341/.403/.504 line last year with 13 HR and 77 RBI in 425 AB with the Triple A Gwinnett Braves. That .341 average was tops in the International League (3 guys were next closest at .319, including some guy named Freddie Freeman) and was named to his third consecutive IL All-Star team (3 post-season selections, 2 mid-season selections). And don't think this was a one-year fluke. His 4 season Triple A slash is .314/.374/.458, almost dead equal with his career (5 seasons) minor league line of .314/.375/.455. The guy doesn't strike out much (about 12% of his Triple A plate appearances) and has remained relatively consistent throughout his career (his worst OPS in 4 Triple A seasons was .785 in 2008).

And Barbaro continues to impress in the off-season. He led his Obergon Mexican Pacific winter team to the league title and a berth in the Caribbean Series, hitting .320 with 12 HR and 45 RBI in just 56 games. Canizares stepped it up in the seven-game championship series, mashing 2 HR and adding 8 RBI. Sounds like a decent player, right? Especially for a team that hasn't had much to get excited about at 1B over the past handful of season (this year being the exception, of course).

Now, the negatives. Canizares is 31 years old. Not exactly the youngest prospect you've seen around. Second, he gets a lot of his AB at the DH spot, having played just 34 of his 126 games in 2010 at first base. While IL Rookie of the Year Freddie Freeman had much to do with that, Canizares still only played 1B in less than 60% of his games during the 2008 and 2009 seasons. His limited time at first certainly hasn't given him time to improve his unimpressive defense. That won't help you make a National League club. And while his 38 HR and .450-type SLG over the past 3 seasons at Triple A certainly isn't 'bad,' those aren't power numbers you need to see from a regular major-league first baseman. In fact, Canizares' lack of power has been one of the main factors that has kept him off essentially every single organizational top prospect list (though he was a 2009 Futures Game selection, oddly enough).

The negatives certainly provide enough reason for Braves fans to not consider him among potential  impact major-leaguers and there are plenty of players who certainly make a decent living as a minor leaguer and organizational depth guy, but Barbaro has proven that he can hit for average, get on base, add a smattering of pop and do it consistently, year in and year out. So I ask: What's The Deal With Barbaro Canizares? Meaning, where does he fit into the Braves plans? He earned a brief appearance with the major league team in 2009, picking up 4 hits (1 2B) in 21 AB over 5 games..not exciting numbers, but 21 AB is juuuust a bit of a small sample size.

Flash forward to the second half of the 2010 Braves season when Troy Glaus was not much more than a strike out/pop out/hobble to first on a weak grounder guy. The team really needed another 1B, preferably one that doesn't cost a ton of money and hits from the right side of the plate to counter the stock of LHB in the line-up. Eric Hinske is a solid hitter (though he was also going through a bit of a slump at the time), but he's a lefty. Freddie Freeman was tearing up the International League, though he's also a lefty and had all of 149 AB above the A+ level coming into the 2010 season. But hey, there's this guy in Gwinnett named Barbaro Canizares who has experience at 1B, is a career .300+ hitter and guess what..he's a righty! Instead, the Braves make a move to acquire Derrek Lee from the Cubs. Certainly not meant to be a knock on Lee, but if that's not the scenario where Barbaro sees some major league time, then what is? It seems to me that teams establish organizational depth for exactly that situation.

Now it's clear that other major league teams are thinking the same thing as the Braves and that they must know something that I don't (shocking, huh?) because Canizares didn't have protection on the Braves 40-man roster, yet wasn't selected in the recent Rule 5 draft. What that basically means is that there were no teams willing to risk even $50k on him staying with their major league club for the entire 2011 season. I guess not shocking considering the Braves didn't even call him up during their first base difficulties, but I'm a bit surprised that an AL team didn't take the risk. The guy can play some 1B, get some DH at-bats and serve as a good-hitting RHB off the bench at a cheap price. I haven't seen any rumors over the past couple seasons of him being included in possible trade packages (not even with Dayton 'I Love Any Brave' Moore and the Royals!) and he wasn't invited as a non-roster invitee to Spring Training.

With Riaan Spanjer-Furstenburg, arguably the organization's best 1B prospect after Freeman, likely still a few seasons away from the top of the minor leagues, it would seem that Braves fans will again see Barbaro Canizares putting up another .300+ All-Star quality season for the Gwinnett Braves at Coolray Field in Lawrenceville, Georgia with little to no chance of making the big league roster.

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