After a grace period month to start the season after a lockout and a shortened spring, MLB teams must trim their rosters this week from 28 players to 26. As such, the Rangers made a number of roster moves on Sunday, including one that was rather unexpected: Willie Calhoun was optioned to Triple-A Round Rock.
In comments made over the phone Sunday afternoon, Calhoun indicated that he would welcome a trade.
“(I’m) gonna go to Triple A and put myself in a position to get traded,” Calhoun said. “I do want to be traded.”
It’s not unusual to see a hitter with a .136 batting average optioned to Triple A. But with Calhoun, there’s certainly more context. Not only did his early-season peripherals indicate that he was hitting the ball hard with unlucky results, but nearly Calhoun’s entire tenure with the Rangers has been fraught with uncertainty.
When the Rangers traded Yu Darvish to the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2017, Calhoun was the headliner of a return package that also included pitcher AJ Alexy and infielder Brendon Davis. At the time, Calhoun was hitting .298/.358/.574 (.931 OPS) for the Oklahoma City Dodgers, with 23 home runs in 99 games. By season’s end, he had made his big-league debut, and things were looking up for the young prospect.
It has been a rocky road since.
In 2018, Calhoun was among the first cuts during spring training. He later admitted that it was a frustrating demotion for him, but that offseason, he lost 24 pounds and retooled his routine in an attempt to make the big leagues. It was not enough to land a spot on the Opening Day roster, and he needed a couple of days to come to terms with the decision. In July, after making it back to the big leagues, he was demoted again, but by season’s end, he had a respectable line of .269/.323/.524 (.848) with 21 home runs in 83 games. When 2020 rolled around, he was poised to make the Opening Day roster.
And then a fastball broke his jaw, which took him time to overcome, both physically and from a mental standpoint while facing left-handed pitchers. By the end of last season, after a hamstring issue limited his playing time upon return, his future with the club was beginning to come into question.
His departure now appears to be more an inevitability. On Sunday, after the Rangers’ 7-3 win over the Braves, Calhoun — who did not play Saturday or Sunday and was mired in an 0-for-11 slump — was demoted to Triple A in favor of Zach Reks, who went 2 -for-5 in the two games.
“Early on, I felt like what we were seeing was good; it was trending in the right direction,” said manager Chris Woodward after the game. “I think lately, it’s gone a little bit backwards. Obviously, he’s still walking, he’s not chasing; some of the parties have been good. But the swing itself — we’ve asked him to work a little bit more vertical with his swing. I don’t want to get too technical, but some of the old over-the-top out-around swings are showing up a lot more, especially on pitches in the heart of the plate.
“Right now, we’re not looking at this as a for-sure long-term solution,” Woodward continued. “This is what we feel is best for Willie, and for the team. … But Willie needs to make — I wouldn’t say a significant change. But he’s got to have a little bit more understanding of how that sort of works best for him. Hopefully, he’ll take the plan we have for him, go down, and he’ll get consistent at-bats.”
“I feel like my whole career has been in a repeating cycle,” Calhoun said via phone. He recalled his time at the University of Arizona, where he struggled to a sub-.700 OPS his first year. When he finally got out — “to somewhere I wanted to be” — he hit .432 with a 1.472 OPS at Yavapai College. The Dodgers selected him in the fourth round.
As for his dissatisfaction with this season, Calhoun says it’s not just the collective frustration of years of setbacks. He believes that the Rangers are asking him to be a different kind of hitter than how he sees himself.
“I don’t agree with some of the hitting philosophies from the new guys,” Calhoun volunteered, saying he did not see eye to eye with the hitting coaches. “I don’t process that (information) too well. I’m not 6-4, 230 pounds; I can’t hit pop-up home runs. I don’t have that leverage.”
Calhoun noted that when he was in the minor leagues with the Dodgers, he was a “line-drive/doubles guy” but that as part of that profile, he did hit a fair number of ground balls to the pull side — something Woodward addressed specifically when explaining the team’s decision. “Then I got here, and they wanted me to start launching it. That’s who I was in the minor leagues. They knew that, but they thought they could turn me into a (power) guy.”
Another topic of discussion was Calhoun’s bad luck earlier in the year, and his ability to get on base via the walk, even when the hits aren’t falling. Calhoun has more walks (8) than strikeouts (6) this season, and insists he believes he can keep that aspect up over the course of a full season.
“I know I can be a .300 hitter,” Calhoun said. “It’s gonna be in a different uniform, for sure … I don’t know if I’ll play another game in a Rangers uniform. And I let them know that.”
He then referred to the situation at the University of Arizona again.
“I feel like it’s the same situation,” he continued. “I’ve been wanting out for the last year, year and a half. I feel like I need a change of scenery.”
He said that he shared those sentiments with the team as part of Sunday’s conversation informing him of the demotion.
“We’re looking to get Willie going,” general manager Chris Young said via text when reached for comment. “The game is about performance. If he goes out and performs at a high level, there will be an opportunity for him.”
For now, Calhoun’s change of scenery will be a diversion from Philadelphia — where the big-league team flight is headed — to Reno, where the Express will begin a six-game series on Monday. He’ll join Sam Huff, Kolby Allard and Josh Sborz — all also optioned on Sunday.
(Photo: Ron Jenkins/Getty Images)