TAMPA, Fla. – After a few injury-plagued and unproductive seasons, Willie Calhoun knew he needed to hit the ground running this spring.
The Yankees’ non-roster invitee typically 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 began his offseason swinging program a month earlier than usual this past winter.
“I kind of wanted to just get back to my old self,” the corner outfielder told The Daily News. “I was banged up a lot the last three years, and it was my first offseason where I could really focus on being healthy and making sure that I put myself in a good position offensively to get back to where I want to be. Because I know I can provide a lot of value.”
Calhoun has flexed some of that value over 38 plate appearances this spring, taking a .344 average, .947 OPS, two doubles, one home run, three RBI and six walks into Monday’s off day. Per Baseball Reference’s Opponent Quality statistic, Calhoun has collectively faced Double-A-level competition, but he’s impressed his coaches nonetheless.
“He can hit,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone repeated Saturday after Calhoun smoked a two-bagger against the Blue Jays. “Feel like he’s in a good place right now. But he knows where the barrel is.”
Calhoun, 28, has had some big league success that supports his skipper’s sentiment. The Vallejo, California native enjoyed a career year with the Rangers in 2019, when he clubbed 21 homers while posting a respectable .269/.323 /.524 slash line. But the aforementioned injuries – including erratic pitches that shattered his jaw in 2020 and his forearm in 2021 – limited the lefty swinger’s availability and made him uneasy at the plate in the following years.
The jaw incident required an air-lift to the hospital. As past and present teammate Isiah Kiner-Falefa told the Daily News, Calhoun “was very unlucky with the Rangers,” and he had an uneventful four-game stint with the Giants last season.
“When you break your bones, you get hit by pitches, it kind of makes you a little bit gun shy and you’re timid to get back into the box,” said Calhoun, who’s hit .221/.286/.335 and appeared in just 126 MLB games since 2019. “So I put that all behind me during the offseason. That’s why I wanted to start earlier this year, just so I can get myself back into that swing of things.”
While Calhoun’s port-side pop made him an intriguing minor league signing when the Yankees inked him in January, it’s his improved defense that’s 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 wasn’t a seamless switch.
Knocked as a liability in the field or a man without a true position in the past, Calhoun recognized the merit in those criticisms and sought to do something about it upon joining a Yankees organization that saw untapped potential.
“I’ve always been labeled as a bad defender, so I’ve been getting after 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 I can grow from.”
Luis Rojas, the Yanks’ third base and outfield coach, has been enamored with Calhoun’s willingness to learn. The ex-Mets manager credited minor league coaches Raul Dominguez, Dan Fiorito and Jose Javier for implementing a plan to develop Calhoun’s defense, which included ways to improve his first step and preparation for Yankee Stadium’s vastly different corner outfield spots.
“I really want to give kudos to him, because he was willing to listen to what we do here and how we envision his outfield play for us,” Rojas told The News. “He’s swung the bat so great. And he’s been so coachable. So it’s definitely been a delight to work with and be around him. Everyone’s pulling for him.”
Added Boone: “I feel like he’s more than held his own to this point. I don’t think he’s been challenged really with much, but he’s handled every routine play that he should handle.”
While Calhoun has been considered a dark horse candidate for the Yankees’ left field job, Rojas and Boone signaled that he might be a better fit in right field at Yankee Stadium, where left is the most cavernous outfield position.
Calhoun, however, did not shy away from the challenge left provides in the Bronx.
“Wherever they need me, I would feel comfortable,” he said. “I get acclimated pretty quickly.”
Of course, Calhoun still has to crack the Yankees’ roster, whether it be to start the season or down the road. 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.
Calhoun prefers a future in pinstripes, though, and he cited a few factors when explaining why he signed with the Yankees. For one, the presence of two ex-Rangers teammates, Kiner-Falefa and Jose Trevino, provided friends, familiarity and insight. “They both spoke very highly of this clubhouse,” Calhoun said.
He also found Yankee Stadium’s short right field porch enticing. Between that and the new restrictions on the shift, Calhoun believes he can seriously boost his output. He noted that hitting alongside the likes of Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Anthony Rizzo, DJ LeMahieu and others would help, too.
“Being in this lineup, I can 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 once again confident after a few down years and has the support of his coaches, he’s not ready to make any declarations when it comes to his standing on the organizational depth chart. The Yankees are weighing their outfield options, and spring training is not over yet.
Calhoun still has work to do if he wants to start the season in New York, but he’s forced himself into the mix.
“It don’t matter if I make the team or not,” Calhoun said when asked if he’s done enough to win a job. “Obviously, I would love to make the Yankees’ Opening Day roster, but I can’t control what they decide.
“I know I’m gonna give it my all no matter what.”