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Willie Calhoun is working hard to crack the Yankees roster

The former top prospect has made some improvements on his game and is trying to break camp with the team.

New York Yankees Spring Training Photo by New York Yankees/Getty Images

As spring training reaches its final stages, it will be decision time for the Yankees on many fronts. They’ll have to choose gets the shortstop gig, who will get the majority of playing time in left field, how are they going to patch up center field until Harrison Bader returns, among many other things.

In one of the many roster battles to follow, Willie Calhoun is trying to convince the coaches and the front office that he is deserving of a spot as a reserve outfielder. Our own Sam Chapman wrote in January that even though Calhoun making the roster was a longshot, he had an interesting set of skills that made the decision to bring him in and compete for a spot a smart one.

Less than a week ago, Willie spring training OPS was well over 1.000. A couple of bad days at the plate took it to .788, highlighting how the small samples we’re working with here are, but that doesn’t erase the good things he has done in February and March. The former Dodgers prospect is now hitting .282/.378/.410 with two doubles, a home run, six walks and just three strikeouts.

His last productive season was 2019, but with the uber-juiced ball, it’s hard to put much value into it. He did have a 110 wRC+ and 21 homers in 339 trips to the plate, though. His wRC+ finishes in the three subsequent seasons? 32, 90, and 59. Woof. That kind of forced the Rangers’ hand.

In the middle (spring training 2020, to be exact) he was hit in the face by a ball, and broke his jaw. It was an ugly scene. Psychologically recovering from that can be difficult. That, plus a forearm fracture, certainly could have been factors in his poor production, even if they cannot be used to hand wave away his struggles.

As a prospect, Calhoun had a plus hit tool and some power, too. For example, in 2017, he hit .298 with 23 homers in 99 Triple-A games. His bat appeared to have real upside.

In 2023 spring training, he has reportedly focused on shoring up two of his weak points: taking walks and defense. Take his 6-to-3 BB-to-walk ratio with a huge grain of salt, given the minuscule sample, but plate discipline is something that can become meaningful quickly, and it’s at least encouraging to see Calhoun show improvements in that area. He’s also been working hard with Yankees coaches to improve his fielding.

“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,” Calhoun told the New York Daily News. “There’s more to that side of the game I can grow from.”

Former New York Mets manager and current Yankees coach Luis Rojas has said Calhoun is very “coachable” and says he is committed to improve.

“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.”

Of course, is listening and being willing to learn is one thing, and another one – an entirely different one – is actually applying what he’s learned. There isn’t much to glean about his spring defensive performance, but regular season reps would give us a more definitive answer.

Offensively, Calhoun still has good barrel control and some sneaky power, so if everything comes together, he could fight for a roster spot until the very end.

Perhaps the episode with the hit by pitch in 2020 affected him more than it should have. He says he has let that go.

“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,” Calhoun, who’s hit .221/.286/.335 since 2019, told the media. “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.”

Yes, Calhoun hasn’t faced top competition yet (Baseball Reference has the quality of his competition around Double-A level) and the size of the sample available this spring again is very small. But, what if all he needs to be an averageish average regular, or a quality backup, was health, some plate approach improvements, and tighter defense? What if he can get those three things in 2023? What if he has them already?

For the cost, finding out is worth a shot. Calhoun would make for an interesting reserve outfielder with the Yankees, and real, competitive baseball would tell us if he really made himself a better ballplayer, or if it was just a spring mirage.