Lars Anderson is the newest member of the Toronto Blue Jays organization, arriving on a waiver claim in late February. He’s a former top prospect who’s stalled out in the upper minors. But with David Cooper injured and Adam Lind’s effectiveness hardly guaranteed, there’s a chance Anderson could work his way back to the bigs this year. He’s still only 25.
Lars Anderson was selected by the Boston Red Sox in the 18th round, 553rd overall, of the 2006 amateur draft out of Jesuit High School in Carmichael, California. He’d played for the U.S. junior national team and was considered an early round talent. But most teams passed on him due to signability concerns stemming from an early commitment to the University of California (Berkeley). Under Theo Epstein’s ambitious draft management, the Red Sox managed to get Anderson under contract for sandwich-round money ($825,000), augmenting a successful class that also yielded Daniel Bard, Justin Masterson and Josh Reddick.
Anderson began his pro career the following season with the full-season Greenville Drive of the South Atlantic League. He attacked fastballs well and showed precocious pitch recognition skills as well as excellent patience. He played 124 games, hitting .288/.385/.443 with an impressive 35 doubles, 10 home runs, 69 RBI and a striking 112/71 SO/BB ratio. He was still a teenager but one demonstrating skills well beyond his years. He also received a brief taste of high-A with the California League’s Lancaster JetHawks and tore the cover off the ball (.343/.489/.486) in the circuit’s cushy hitting environs. He was surging up prospect charts and looked to be worth every penny of his draft bonus.
He began 2008 back in Lancaster but the league couldn’t hold him for long. In 77 games, he slugged .317/.408/.513 with 19 doubles and 13 home runs, driving in 50 and registering a strong 64/46 SO/BB. Promoted to the Eastern League’s Portland Sea Dogs in July, Anderson obliterated his first taste of AA, swatting .316/.436/.526 with 13 doubles, 5 home runs, 30 RBI and incredible patience (43/29 SO/BB) over a 41-game trial. All told, he’d put up a .317/.417/.517 slash line with 32 doubles and 18 home runs and extraordinary control (107/75 SO/BB) for a developing power bat. He reached base in 36 of his 41 AA games, producing a .926 OPS at the level as a 20-year old. His strikeout rate (26.4%) rose after the promotion but so, too, did his walks (17.8%). It looked like he was on the fast-track to stardom. The only real caveat in his profile lurked in his unbelievable BABIPs. He’d registered crazy numbers in the category at every stop of his career – but his .430 AA mark was never going to hold up over a full season. Still, Anderson had done more than enough to earn Red Sox Minor League Offensive Player of the Year honours and clearly rated as one of the truly elite prospects in baseball. His luck only looked like something to keep an eye on.
Boston hoped Anderson could build upon his AA success by spending all of 2009 back in Portland and he got off to a solid, if not spectacular, start as the league adjusted to him. But in the second half, Anderson regressed to an almost unbelievable level, hitting just .154 with one home run and 9 RBI over his last 40 games. It was an unconscionable collapse. Many wondered if he was playing hurt and, indeed, his season ended early due to back soreness and hamstring problems. But were they the sole cause of such prolonged misery? In 119 total games, Anderson was left with a line of just .233/.328/.345, 23 doubles, 9 home runs, 51 RBI and a souring 114/63 SO/BB rate. His line drive rate sunk from 19.9% to just 13%. And, indeed, his luck completely ran out, sending his BABIP plunging from .430 to a more credible .292. Had playing hurt cost him half a season of development time? Or did his first real bout of failure send him crumbling under expectations that he was supposed to be the Red Sox first baseman of the future? With Anthony Rizzo climbing quickly behind him, Anderson now faced an uncertain path.
Shaken by his awful finish, Boston had little choice but to return Anderson to Portland in 2010. He responded like it’d never happened, hitting an extraordinary .355/.408/.677 with 5 home runs in 17 games. His health was assured, it was clear his approach was still intact and Boston quickly promoted him to the AAA Pawtucket Red Sox. There, he seemed to fall in somewhere between his two extremes, hitting .262/.340/.428 with 32 doubles, 10 home runs, 53 RBI and a mediocre 109/44 SO/BB ratio the rest of the way. On one hand, his gap strength and patience had returned to wicked effect. On the other, he was now struggling mightily against southpaws and still only hitting .262 with below average home run power. He received a late promotion to Boston, making his major league debut against the Tampa Bay Rays. But Anderson would only get into 18 games while hitting a soft .200/326/.229. More adjustments were still necessarily. He would enter 2011 at age 23 ticketed again for AAA. Still young enough to develop more power and restore his prospect standing. But old enough now that questions about his ultimate power ceiling wouldn’t go away. He’d earned a reputation as smart and hard working. But there were rumblings that he sometimes put too much pressure on himself, extending slumps when things weren’t going well. That winter, Boston traded Rizzo as part of a package for Adrian Gonzalez. Anderson now appeared blocked and could only prepare for a return engagement in the International League awaiting an opportunity, most likely in another organization.
The Red Sox had little choice but to send him back to the International League and hope for the best. Instead, Anderson gave them more of the same. He played 93 games, hitting .259/.359/.415 with 22 doubles, 9 HRs, 52 RBI and a 89/56 SO/BB. Injuries to Carl Crawford and Jacoby Ellsbury helped him back to the show for a week in April. But when Kevin Youkilis got hurt in May, Will Middlebrooks was up and Anderson was history. At the deadline, he was traded to the Cleveland Indians for right-handed knuckleballer Steven Wright, capping a disappointing end to Anderson’s Red Sox career. He couldn’t break the Cleveland lineup, either, even with injuries and ineffectiveness sidelining Matt LaPorta and Travis Hafner. Instead, they rolled with Casey Kotchman’s flailing ghost all the way to a 68-win season. Anderson was stuck manning first in AAA for the Columbus Clippers – and he was awful, hitting a meagre .196/.319/.286 with 5 doubles, no home runs and a 18/9 SO/BB in 18 games. There were now real doubts about whether he’d ever be able to establish himself as a major league regular. In December, he was sent packing again as part of a three-team trade with the Arizona Diamondbacks and Cincinnati Reds featuring Trevor Bauer and Shin-Soo Choo. Anderson looked like little more than a depth piece and, by February, found himself on waivers, then claimed by the Chicago White Sox. His time as a south-sider lasted only three weeks before they waived him, too. In need of first base depth and sensing a buy-low opportunity, the Blue Jays claimed Anderson and invited him to spring training.
For all the dreams that Lars Anderson may one day revive his stagnating career, at this point, it appears this is what he is. A guy very much like David Cooper. In Toronto, that may actually make Anderson useful to have around. This winter, Toronto lost Mike McDade to Cleveland. Then Cooper was unable to report to camp because of a back injury that now threatens to derail his season. That leaves the Blue Jays awfully thin at first base in the upper minors. Given Adam Lind is the incumbent DH, depth may prove to be a valuable commodity. Anderson’s spot on the 40-man is hardly secure. And he’ll slot in behind Anthony Gose, Moises Sierra and Josh Thole on the list of probable call-ups biding their time in Buffalo. But if Lind’s conditioning or performance falters and Anderson gets off to a good start, we could see him in Toronto this summer.
It’s interesting that Anderson is essentially stepping into Cooper’s role on this Blue Jays team. After Anderson signed in Boston, Cooper ended up transferring to the University of California and starring there before being drafted by Toronto. Now, Anderson is part insurance plan, part cautionary tale about overvaluing prospect assets.
If he can regain the strike zone, he may end up putting together a decent season in the next few years. But to do it, he’ll need a major league opportunity he won’t likely find in Toronto.
Lars Anderson, 1B
09/25/87 Bats: L Throws: L HT: 6-4 WT: 215
Oakland, California High School: Jesuit (Sacramento, CA)
Drafted by Boston in the 18th round, 553rd overall, of the 2006 MLB Amateur Draft.
Acquired: Selected off waivers from the Chicago White Sox on February 25, 2013
Contract Status: Not eligible for arbitration before 2016.
Service Time: 0.053