In case you missed it, the left field-needy Yankees have added an outfielder a few days ago. Mark Feinsand of MLB.com reported the team had signed … drumroll please … former Rangers prospect Willie Calhoun.
Oh, and on a minor league contract.
Most Yankees fans are probably groaning at this. Calhoun, 28, has never caught on in the majors despite being a former top prospect. He’s played in just 257 games in six years with Texas and the Giants. Last year, he managed just 24 games with both the Rangers and San Francisco.
Calhoun did turn in one decent year in which he hit .269 with 21 home runs, 48 RBI, and an .848 OPS in just 83 games. Sadly, that season was in 2019 and most hitters overachieved thanks to juiced balls. That means despite past potential, Willie Calhoun is one shot away from being a journeyman Quadruple-A outfielder.
And yet, signing Calhoun is one of those ever-so-frustrating, analytics-obsessive, Brian Cashman “upside” moves that’s just crazy enough to work. Even he has to have a reason for ignoring Calhoun’s minus-14 career defensive runs saved (DRS).
First and foremost, Calhoun bats left-handed and we all know the Yankees have too many righties. Even better is that despite his small sample size, he isn’t prone to strikeouts. He only has a 15.3% strikeout rate (K%) in 936 career plate appearances. He doesn’t walk much either, only a career rate of 7.1%, but makes up for it by putting the ball in play.
We hear a lot of TV analysts today go on and on about “bat to ball” skills and Calhoun is a master of that. His career-worst in strikeouts is a mere 65 in a minor league season. He also has some pop in his bat, having slugged 31 homers at Triple-A in the Rangers and Dodgers’ systems in 2017. Calhoun also hit .300 with a .927 OPS that same year.
And yet, on the MLB level, Calhoun’s biggest claim to fame is being the final out of Corey Kluber’s no-hitter in 2021. He’s been back and forth to the minors a few times since 2019 and his power hasn’t followed him. This sounds less like juiced balls and more like a former top prospect who has lost his confidence.
This is where the Yankees and hitting coach Dillion Lawson can get to work. Lawson’s philosophy is more aggressive and focused on bat to ball skills. He won’t ask Calhoun to simply wait for a walk or turn a perfect mistake into a home run.
No, the goal in spring training is to tap into Calhoun’s power and hope there’s some contact there too. Remember, there’s no shift to steal base hits from lefty pull hitters this year. Calhoun’s career pull rate is 43.2% and he’s gone up the middle 38.6% of the time. Maybe some adjusted, league-mandated infield positioning is just what he needs to bounce back?
Willie Calhoun is not Max Kepler, nor Ian Happ or Bryan Reynolds. In fact, he might not be much better than Aaron Hicks in 2023. The Yankees would definitely prefer to leave such a hitting void out of the lineup.
But Hicks isn’t an everyday player anymore, at least not in the Bronx. Oswaldo Cabrera’s potential doesn’t outweigh his inexperience as an outfielder. Fellow minor league signee and former Yankees prospect Billy McKinney? Please.
When owner Hal Steinbrenner said, “we’re not done yet,” he probably didn’t mean Calhoun. Pitchers and catchers report in six weeks. That’s plenty of time for Cashman to make a trade and acquire an everyday outfielder.
But if the trade market proves fruitless, Cashman might be onto something with Willie Calhoun. Ignore the ugly glove. At the plate, he’s a determined contact hitter who’d walk into traffic before striking out, just what the Yankees need from a left-fielder.
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