Fourth in a series of spring training previews
Joey Gallo seems so sure that he is going to play first base for the Texas Rangers in 2018 that he spent all off-season working on the position. When he mentions his chances of playing left field, it’s as a just-in-case scenario.
He might be the best candidate for that position, too.
But if 2018 is about learning which players already in the organization can be counted upon in future seasons, Gallo needs to be at first base.
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Putting him there provides an opening for as many as four players, including their top prospect (according to Baseball America), to establish themselves in left field.
That prospect is Willie Calhoun, the prize of the Yu Darvish trade last season and the hyped hitting machine whose bat will keep him in the major leagues.
His glove? Well, that’s why he’s a candidate to be the Rangers’ left fielder. But just as Delino DeShields is confident he can be a better defensive center fielder, Calhoun believes he can play left field.
“I’m just trying to make the most of every opportunity,” Calhoun said. “I’m just working on my first step and just getting as much reps as possible in the outfield, and just getting better every day from my defense standpoint.”
Calhoun has been to Globe Life Park twice this off-season and will be involved in one of the few position battles during spring training later this month in Surprise, Ariz. Ryan Rua, Drew Robinson and Jurickson Profar will get a chance at regular playing time, too, as the Rangers fully intend to play Nomar Mazara in right field and have Shin-Soo Choo serve as the designated hitter.
The value that comes with Rua, Robinson and Profar is that they can play multiple other positions. In a way, because those players could be needed elsewhere, that could turn into an advantage for Calhoun, who as recently as the middle of last season was a second baseman.
That changed just before he and two other minor-leaguers were dealt by the Los Angeles Dodgers for Darvish, and Calhoun made his major-league debut in September at left field. Getting a taste of the position at the game’s highest level, and beating expectations with his performance, gave him a boost heading into the off-season.
“Just the ball coming off the bat is a lot different in the major leagues than the minor leagues, obviously,” Calhoun said. “The balls go a little farther here. Coming up the last month helped me a lot.”
He can’t be a defensive liability, not with the Rangers hoping that improvements in the field can help the pitching staff improve. But the thought is that he will atone for the defensive deficiencies with his bat.
Calhoun hit 31 home runs last season at two Triple A stops, and got his first major league baseball homer out of the way Sept. 27. He finished with 34 big-league at-bats, batting .265 with four RBIs.
A left-handed hitter, Calhoun doesn’t have drastic left-right splits. It’s conceivable that he winds up in a platoon with Rua, a right-handed hitter with a career .270 average against left-handers.
He could also spell Gallo at first base against particularly tough lefties.
Robinson figures to be the backup in center field to DeShields, but can play just about anywhere. Profar will make the team, as he is out of options, and is another utility player who could end up as the Opening Day left fielder.
The Rangers will have a position battle on their hands this spring. While Calhoun needs to improve defensively, the Rangers believe he can.
“We’ve got our work to do with him, but as he continues to get physically mature and gets experience and skill work out there, I think he’ll get better,” general manager Jon Daniels said. “It wasn’t a DH standing out there. He played aggressively. He wanted information. He wasn’t afraid. It’s a pretty good starting point.”