TAMPA – After a few injury-plagued and unproductive seasons, Willie Calhoun knew he needed to get going this spring.
The Yankees’ non-roster invitee usually gets off to a slow start in camp, but that wasn’t an option if he wanted to make the Bombers’ Opening Day lineup. So Calhoun started his offseason trade program a month earlier than usual last winter.
“I wanted to go back to the way I was before,” the corner gardener told The Daily News. “I’ve been hit a lot in the last three years, and it was my first offseason where I was able to really focus on getting healthy and making sure I get in a good offensive position to get back to where I want to be. Because I know I can add a lot of value”.
Calhoun has flexed some of that value in 38 plate appearances this spring, earning a .344 average, .947 OPS, two doubles, one home run, three RBIs and six walks on Monday’s off day. By Baseball Reference Opponent Quality StatCalhoun has collectively faced Double-A level competition, but has nonetheless impressed his coaches.
“He can hit,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone repeated Saturday after Calhoun smoked a double against the Blue Jays. “I feel like he’s in a good place right now. But he knows where the barrel is.”
Calhoun, 28, has had some success in the big leagues that backs up his captain’s sentiment. The Vallejo, California native enjoyed a career year with the Rangers in 2019, when he hit 21 home runs and posted a respectable .269/.323/.524 line. But the aforementioned injuries, including erratic pitches that shattered his jaw in 2020 and his forearm in 2021, limited the left-handed swinger’s availability and plagued him at the plate in subsequent years.
The jaw incident required an airlift to the hospital. As his current and former teammate Isiah Kiner-Falefa told the Daily News, Calhoun “had very bad luck with the Rangers,” and had an uneventful four-game season with the Giants last season.
“When you break your bones, you get hit by pitches, it makes you a little gun-shy and you’re shy to get back in the box,” said Calhoun, who hit .221/.286/.335 and appeared in just 126 career games. the MLB since 2019. “So I put all that behind me during the offseason. That’s why I wanted to start earlier this year, just so I could get back to that pace of things.”
While Calhoun’s portside pop made him an intriguing minor league signing when the Yankees tattooed him in January, it’s his improved defense that kept him in contention for a roster spot.
Drafted by the Dodgers as a second baseman, Calhoun didn’t fully transition to the outfield until after the 2017 trade that sent him to Texas and brought Yu Darvish to Los Angeles. But it was not a continuous change.
Considered a liability on the field or a man without real standing in the past, Calhoun took credit for those criticisms and sought to do something about it by joining a Yankees organization that saw untapped potential.
“I’ve always been labeled a bad defender, so I’ve been looking for it this spring with the outfield coaches here, and they’ve taught me a lot so far,” he said. “There’s more to that side of the game that I can grow from.”
Luis Rojas, third baseman and outfield coach for the Yankees, has fallen for Calhoun’s willingness to learn. The former Mets manager credited minor league coaches Raúl Domínguez, Dan Fiorito and José Javier for implementing a plan to develop Calhoun’s defense, which included ways to improve his first walk and preparation for the many different spots on the field. corner outfield at Yankee Stadium.
“I really want to congratulate him, because he was willing to listen to what we do here and how we envision his field game for us,” Rojas told The News. “He has swung the bat so well. And he’s been so coachable. So it’s definitely been a pleasure working with him and being around him. Everyone is pulling for him.”
Boone added: “I feel like he’s more than defended up to this point. I don’t think he’s really been challenged with much, but he’s handled all the routine plays that he should handle.”
While Calhoun has been considered an obscure candidate for the Yankees’ left field job, Rojas and Boone noted that he might be a better fit in right field at Yankee Stadium, where left field is the most cavernous position.
Calhoun, however, did not shy away from the challenge that left him in the Bronx.
“Wherever they need me, I would feel comfortable,” he said. “I acclimatize pretty quickly.”
Of course, Calhoun has yet to figure out the Yankees’ roster, either to start the season or in the future. He told The News that he believes he has an opt-out in his contract, but he wasn’t sure of the deadline. Calhoun’s agent did not immediately respond to a request for clarification.
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Still, Calhoun prefers a pinstripe future, citing a few factors in explaining why he signed with the Yankees. For one thing, the presence of two former Rangers teammates, Kiner-Falefa and José Treviño, provided friends, familiarity and insight. “They both spoke highly of this clubhouse,” Calhoun said.
He also found Yankee Stadium’s short right-field porch tempting. Between that and the new turn restrictions, Calhoun thinks he can seriously up his output. He noted that hitting alongside the likes of Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Anthony Rizzo, DJ LeMahieu and others would also help.
“Being in this lineup, I get to be myself,” Calhoun added. “I don’t have to go out there and try to hit a home run. I can be a low volume guy, but I can also produce.”
While Calhoun is confident again after a few years of inactivity and has the support of his coaches, he isn’t ready to make any statements when it comes to his position on the organizational depth chart. The Yankees are weighing their outfield options, and spring training isn’t over yet.
Calhoun still has work to do if he wants to start the season in New York, but he forced himself into it.
“It doesn’t matter if I’m on the team or not,” Calhoun said when asked if he had done enough to get a job. “Obviously, I would love to be on the Yankees’ Opening Day roster, but I can’t control what they decide.
“I know I’m going to give it my all no matter what.”