The player business of baseball has been under scrutiny this off-season. The lack of action in free agency until the last month or so has people throwing around words like “collusion”, even in the darkest crevices you heard “strike” whispered. That possibility isn't around until 2021, so we've got some time.
There's no doubt the way that teams went about the free agent process this winter was and continues to be bizarre. It makes perfect sense within the mindset of “We're tired of paying older players more money than they're 'worth'.” It's spawned many discussions about the future of free agency, the power of teams over the players that make them look good, and the general idea of labor compensation in an inherently unfair system.
Which brings us to Willie Calhoun.
It's true that Calhoun isn't a free agent. Calhoun still has lots of team control left. His earliest free agency isn't until 2024. How does he factor into this discussion?
We got the news Tuesday of several players being re-assigned to minor league camp. One of those was Willie Rakes, who will start his 2018 campaign in Round Rock. That came as a surprise to just about everyone, considering the battle for left field hasn't been a heated one. The assumption was that Calhoun would be in left, Delino DeShields in center (the organization confirmed that Sunday), and Nomar Mazara in right with Shin Soo Choo as the DH.
For now, that doesn't seem to be the plan with the emphasis on “for now.”
I'm pretty sure I know the reason Calhoun isn't starting the season in the majors. For the sake of argument though, let's explore what this move tells us about the apparently open left field job.
Drew Robinson and Ryan Rua are fighting for the Opening Day job
That wasn't a sentence I expected to ever write. Shock aside, D-Rob and Rua are the most likely candidates to start the season in left field, with the possibility that both make the roster as a left-handed/right-handed platoon. They're both solid defensively, even if the bats leave something to be desired.
While Choo is on the roster, him in left field isn't something anybody wants to see. Carlos Tocci is on the roster, but as he's played a total of 13 games across all levels in left, his job seems to be DeShields' backup if he makes the club.
In Rua, Texas is looking at a freshly 28 year old who has yet to ever show anything at the plate more than average production. A career OPS below .700, and even the idea of him as a plus versus lefties is a a false narrative (.741 career OPS vs left handers). It's a possibility, though a faint one, that Rua morphs into the next coming of JD Martinez or Nelson Cruz. But even Martinez started his revival at 26, two years younger than Rua. We know what Rua is, a AAAA outfielder type who is a backup at the big league level. Starting him willingly over Calhoun doesn't make baseball or intellectual sense.
Meanwhile, Robinson is essentially what happened if you shoved Rua in a cloning machine but he had some dirt on his hands so the clone came out left-handed. Robinson is 26, hits lefty, but in his 48 games last year posted remarkably similar numbers to Rua. Which means that in this battle, Texas is basically deciding between the same player but can't decide if they want a lefty or righty. Or, again, maybe they won't decide at all, keep both, and just interchange them based on the probables.
I guess Texas could surprise us by giving this whole left fielder Jurickson Profar experiment another run, but Jeff Banister has been on record saying he's an infielder going forward. Maybe Destin Hood turns into the second coming of Barry Bonds. It seems like for now, the above scenario is the most likely.
If you're scratching your head about why Texas would willingly start older players who have less ceiling and even less floor than the one sent down, well let's get to the possible explanations for the Calhoun demotion.
“He still has some work to do.”
The most common explanation for when a player goes to the minor leagues. We didn't have to wait long before Jeff Banister offered that platitude. Per Jeff Wilson:
“We feel like he still has some growth, not only on the defensive side, but to continue growth on the offensive side as well. He’s going to be a good player, but we’ve got to do some work on the defense to complete that.”
That may well be true. That said, last year in 128 games with two different Triple A teams Calhoun posted a .927 OPS with 31 homers. Those numbers line up with everything he's done at all the other levels, so it's not some sort of outlier. That doesn't mean he will automatically do that at the big league level, but if you want him to improve at that level he needs to be facing pitchers of that quality.
The same goes for his defense. There is an adjustment period going from minor league to big league stadiums when it comes to how balls read because of the stadium sizes. In the case of Calhoun, who already has a major league ready offense, there's no sense in not letting him learn the defense in the places he will be defending.
As well, even if you believe Calhoun isn't as good now as he will be later, he's still better than the players you intend to play in front of him. Even if you drop 100 points off his career MiLB OPS (.868), he's still at .768 which is better than Rua and Robinson both. That's solid for a 23 year old you believe can grow with more playing time.
“Well the roster flexibility...”
Yes, the Texas roster isn't the model of flexibility you'd like in 2018. One of the big arguments for Robinson and Rua are that they can play infield also, so they're more deserving of roster spots. This is where Choo being an outfield liability has crunched the roster.
That said, the assumption is that Calhoun isn't going to spend the entire year in AAA. So he'll go to Round Rock, rake, and when they bring him up the roster will...still be as inflexible as it was. I can't imagine in however long the time period between Calhoun's return to the bigs Choo suddenly becomes a defensive asset and other players learn two other positions.
Meaning the problems Texas is facing on March 13th are the same as they'll be on March 29th as they'll be on say...May 4th. So the idea that Calhoun doesn't fit on the roster because of flexibility means that barring drastic changes to the roster he won't ever fit this year.
Also the flexibility argument doesn't really apply to any other starting caliber player. Nobody is hounding Adrian Beltre to play first, we don't ask Rougned Odor to play shortstop. Calhoun is now a left fielder, and a starting caliber one on a team that expressed a desire to see their young players play. Punishing him for the same things that aren't a factor for other players of his ilk is unfair.
So if we acknowledge that Calhoun isn't getting sent down for players better than him, and the other primary reasons for a demotion are empty, why is he not on the roster right now?
Service time my friends. Service time.
By sending Calhoun down and keeping him down until a certain date, the team can wring another year of control out of him. For the actual math of this, here's smart baseball man Scott Lucas.
Suddenly, it all makes sense. This isn't about a player needing to get better, or roster flexibility, or any of the other trite cliches you've already begun hearing. Texas is using the rules of service time to give themselves a financial advantage. Under the rules of baseball, there's nothing wrong with what they're doing. This is 100% legal, if not horribly unethical.
Yet, you won't see much outrage from the fans. They'll go along with what the organization says, what their favorite pundits spew regarding the above situations, and when Calhoun comes up in May the second it doesn't cost Texas the extra year they desire everyone will have forgotten the exploitative tactic used.
As long as the name on the front means more than the name on the back, this cycle will continue. There will be no public repercussions from this, and as long as the union continues to be a bumbling inept circus this won't change.
There will be more Willie Calhouns, and as the Willie Calhouns grow and develop they'll turn into the next JD Martinezes. The cycle of players being subject to unfair labor practices, while we as a public accept the lies about why these things happen, sometimes gleefully.
While we perhaps get to see a player play for our team for cheap for an extra year, that we, as a public continue to defend and glorify those who stand at the gates of inequality shows how little we actually care about those providing us with the moments and entertainment we so cherish.
Do you feel like Willie Calhoun is getting a fair shake or does working on his defense in Round Rock make sense to you? Share your hot takes with Samuel on Twitter @thesamuelhale.