Is Willie Calhoun forcing the Rangers to go oppo?

Though things don’t always play out as planned, if I can manage it I generally try to get to work on the Bound Edition each year on Labor Day weekend. There’s the Top 72 Prospects list to build up and break down, the Rule 5 conundrum chapter, best minor league tools in the system, and a bunch of other book features (plus the halfcourt shot to land the authors for the two forewords, which I’m thrilled to say I’ve drained).

There’s one prospect feature I’m not about to get to work on just yet, because I’m not real sure yet where his 2017 story ends.

Round Rock’s final action this season will get underway in a couple hours. Its penultimate game started and ended, last night, with Willie Calhoun.

The key piece to the Rangers’ trade of Yu Darvish to the Dodgers, Calhoun played nothing but second base in the Los Angeles system in 2015 and 2016, his first two years of pro ball. This summer, promoted to AAA, he saw action 74 times at second base and, for the first time as a pro, he got some burn in the outfield — a total of 12 times, the first of which wasn’t until the back end of an Oklahoma City doubleheader in June. It wouldn’t be surprising if that experiment was triggered by a conversation or two the Dodgers were beginning to have with other teams, exploring ideas on ways to improve their own club (which, at the time, was tied for second in the NL West, despite having the third-best record in the league). Perhaps another club or two suggested that, yes, they would be interested in Calhoun this summer — but didn’t view the pure hitter as an infielder.

The path to the big leagues in Los Angeles was arguably clearer at second base than on an outfield corner, which is probably why the Dodgers kept Calhoun in the infield as long as they did, just to see if it would come together for the kid. Moving him to the outfield in June, even just part of the time, looks like it might have been to meet another objective, one that eventually presented itself for Los Angeles with the Darvish trade.

On July 31, Los Angeles sent Calhoun — along with righthander A.J. Alexy and infielder Brendon Davis — to Texas for Darvish. The Dodgers had played Calhoun at second base 258 times (270 if you count his 2016 Arizona Fall League stint) and just a dozen times in the outfield, all in his final two months with the organization. The Rangers clearly view Calhoun differently, as he’s played just three times on the dirt in his 28 games with Round Rock, the rest defensively in left field.

Last night’s game began, harmlessly, with Calhoun gathering in a fly ball off the bat of — interestingly — Oklahoma City second baseman-left fielder Tim Locastro, a 2015 (High A Rancho Cucamonga) and 2016 (AA Tulsa and AFL/Glendale) and 2017 (AAA Oklahoma City) teammate of Calhoun’s.

In the fifth inning, after Jurickson Profar singled and stole second, Calhoun blasted a home run — his 30th on the year — to right field, knotting the game at 4–4.

The Dodgers regained the lead over the next two innings, 8–4 — but in the bottom of the seventh, with righthander Walker Buehler (one of baseball’s top prospects, and widely believed to have been untouchable in July trade talks) on the mound, Calhoun followed a pair of walks with a two-run single to center. Oklahoma City 8, Round Rock 6.

The Dodgers plated another run in the eighth, and 26-year-old Cuban righthander Yaisel Sierra — who signed a $30 million deal with Los Angeles last year — kept the Express off the board in the same frame, taking a 9–6 lead to the ninth.

Oklahoma City failed to score in the top of the inning, and Sierra retook the mound to close things out.

Catcher Kevin Torres, on the first pitch he saw, singled to Locastro in left.

Center fielder Jose Cardona fouled a pitch off, then singled to center.

Profar drew a four-pitch walk (he now has 42 AAA bases on balls, and just 32 strikeouts).

Up stepped Calhoun against his former teammate Sierra, whom he’d faced just once before (taking a pitch the other way in an August 11 game, singling to left with two men on).

This time, there were three men on.

Sierra’s first pitch to Calhoun was the final pitch of the game.

It was up and away and Calhoun did what you’re supposed to do with up and away, going with the pitch and hammering it to left center field.

Grand slam. Ballgame. You should watch it.

It was home run number 31 on the year for the 22-year-old (and 93 RBI in just 127 games), improving his Round Rock numbers to .300/.336/.564 over 28 games (eight homers, 26 RBI, no errors, three outfield assists) with today’s season finale remaining. In his 110 plate appearances with the Express, he’s gone down on strikes 11 times.

That’s an insanely low number.

Especially for a power hitter.

And in his seven games (29 plate appearances) against his former club? A slash line of .407/.429/.741 and 11 runs driven in, including Round Rock’s final eight on Sunday.

“It was a really cool feeling to hit it against them,” Calhoun told MiLB.com after the game. “I was with those guys for most of the year and to hit a walk-off against them was an unreal feeling. In the end, it’s all fun and games. Everyone in that clubhouse is my friend and they’re a great bunch of dudes. But I was still really proud to be able to do that against them. I guess I have a little extra chip on my shoulder. You always want to prove that you’re a great player and to show them what they’re missing.”

Which brings me to the buried lede.

After today, will Calhoun get a bigger September opportunity to prove that he’s a great player and show his former organization what they’ll be missing?

For the first month after the Darvish deal, I was pretty certain that Texas wasn’t going to bring Calhoun to the big leagues this year. It’s not because of any sense that he’d be overmatched offensively. It’s because he won’t be Rule 5-eligible this winter, and so he doesn’t need to be added to the 40-man roster this off-season.

Even if Calhoun were a good bet to make the Rangers’ Opening Day roster in April, keeping one extra spot on the roster this winter (which is effectively a 39-man roster until spring training, as Prince Fielder must remain on the off-season roster through 2020 in order for Texas to collect significant insurance proceeds) could be meaningful. While it’s true that there are several players on the roster who will drop off as free agents, and others who will painlessly be let go, there will be plenty additions needed through free agency or trades.

And then there’s the matter of Rule 5.

After the Rangers’ disastrous 2014 season, the club added Jerad Eickhoff, Jorge Alfaro, Luke Jackson, and Hanser Alberto to the 40-man roster in order to protect them from the draft. Texas not only had work to do to build its big league roster back up after a 95-loss season — the club also wanted to keep one more spot clear than it might have otherwise, in order to take advantage of its unusually high Rule 5 position and draft a player in December. The Rangers ended up drafting Delino DeShields.

But they also decided, in rostering Eickhoff, Alfaro, Jackson, and Alberto, to leave players like Jared Hoying, Brett Nicholas, Connor Sadzeck, Will Lamb, and Abel De Los Santos exposed to the draft — as well as Odubel Herrera.

At the time, the decision to leave Herrera off (in favor, by some accounts, of keeping Alberto, the much purer middle infielder) didn’t set off any fan base alarms, but now he’s a .290-hitting everyday center fielder, with an All-Star Game to his credit, in Philadelphia.

This year’s draft-eligible crop includes five players who I’d say are strong considerations for the roster in late November: catcher Jose Trevino, righthanders Jonathan Hernandez and Ariel Jurado, and lefthanders Joe Palumbo and Brett Martin.

It does not include Willie Calhoun. He wouldn’t yet be eligible, based on service time, to be drafted for another year if not on the 40-man roster.

There are others, too, whom the Rangers will at least discuss internally in advance of making November roster decisions. Infielder-catcher Isiah Kiner-Falefa. Righthanders Scott Williams and Sam Wolff and Reid Garrett and Edgar Arredondo and Richelson Pena and lefthander Brady Feigl. Center fielder Jose Cardona, and outfielder-turned-reliever Jairo Beras.

There will be players left off the roster, necessarily, who will be draft considerations elsewhere. And if Calhoun is brought to the big leagues this month, it probably means one extra minor league exposed to the draft — possibly even from the first list above.

That’s the reason — the only reason — that I strongly believed Calhoun would not see Arlington this season.

Until Adrian Beltre got hurt.

Now there are conceivably at-bats available.

And, still, a pennant race.

For what it’s worth, in what might seem like counter-intuitive reasoning, I think if Texas were out of the race, we wouldn’t see Calhoun. If he comes up, it’s because the front office believes he can help the Rangers get to 162+.

Still, though, the club might feel that the outfield and DH, between DeShields and Carlos Gomez and Nomar Mazara and Drew Robinson and Shin-Soo Choo and Mike Napoli, won’t offer enough opportunity to Calhoun this month to justify that winter spot. Ryan Rua and Hoying are candidates to rejoin the club, as is Profar, and at some point you have to ask where the at-bats would come for Calhoun.

Next year, he’ll be here. Maybe in April, maybe not. But he’ll be here at some point in 2018. In the lineup.

The question of whether Calhoun will be here in 2017, of whether he put a bow on an extraordinary season on Sunday night, along with whatever he does this afternoon — as opposed to following all that with a big league debut — is one that has to do almost solely with procedure, and not production.

Willie Calhoun is a very big part of this thing going forward. We may see him in a Rangers uniform any day now — because of the domino effect of the Beltre injury and the Wild Card chase the club remains a factor in — but we may not, and if that’s what happens it’s not because of his defense and not because of his age and not because he’s failed to live up to expectations following the Darvish trade and not because there may actually be someone on the planet unsure of whether the kid can do damage to big league pitching right now.

It would only be because of the way the game’s procedural rules are laid out, and the front office’s attention to detail as it determines whether the benefit of keeping that one extra player shielded from the draft — who could otherwise turn out to be some new team’s Delino DeShields or Odubel Herrera — is risk reduction enough to forgo the opportunity to see how that seriously exciting bat might affect a pennant race this month.

Things don’t always play out as planned. And given the events of the last few days, in St. Petersburg and in Round Rock, I’m no longer even sure what the plans might be.

 
title_authors

Jamey Newberg

Dallas attorney Jamey Newberg has been commenting on Rangers from the big club down through the entire farm system since 1998.

Scott Lucas

Scott Lucas was born in Arlington, Texas, to Richard and Becky Lucas. He lived mostly in Arlington before moving to Austin, where he graduated from The University of Texas. Scott works for Austin Valuation Consultants, Ltd., and has published several boring articles about real estate appraisal and environmental contamination. He makes a swell margarita and refuses to run longer than ten kilometres.

Eleanor Czajka

Eleanor grew up watching the AAA Mudhens in Toledo, Ohio. A loyal Ranger fan since 1979, she works "behind the scenes" at the Newberg Report.

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