For the first 10 rounds of an MLB Draft there is a cardinal rule: it doesn’t matter how talented a player is if you can’t sign him. Even once you get past that point, you certainly want to sign as many players as possible, and there is little sense drafting a player that you know 100% will not sign. But since there is no penalty for not signing a player once the first 10 rounds pass, teams have the opportunity to take at least few chances to see if they can make a run at a talented player who slipped in the draft because of a strong commitment to go to college. They can see if maybe the player changes his mind or maybe some money remains in the bonus pool to give them something to offer him. And if you can somehow sign him, suddenly you may end up with one of the biggest steals of the entire draft. The Rays will hope to do just that with Benicia High School second baseman Willie Calhoun.
Calhoun is not a big guy at 5’9″, 177 and you can probably guess based on the stereotype that he’s a grinder, a player who hustles out every play and does everything in his power to help the team. What the stereotype doesn’t tell you is that his team mentality is only an added bonus for an extremely talented player, especially in the batter’s box. Calhoun shows lightning-quick bat speed from the left side and uses it well, drilling line drives to all fields. He does an excellent job making contact but knows the strike zone well and does a good job of laying off of pitches he can’t drive. Like many high school players, his pitch recognition will need some work, but with more experience, he should be fine. And despite his size, Calhoun flashes impressive power to right and right-center. Always showing an ability to lace balls to the gaps, Calhoun has begun making the adjustment to add some lift to his swing and show more home run power, giving him a chance to be a 20-home run threat. One issue right now, though, is that Calhoun gets in trouble when he sells out for power, hitting too much weak contact in the air. He’ll have to learn to do a better job incorporating his budding power into his regular approach as a hitter. Calhoun certainly isn’t perfect, but at the end of the day you have an impressive pure hitter with solid power potential and their aren’t too many players like that around in the draft.
Most telling about Calhoun’s personality may be the development of his defensive abilities. Not particularly quick or agile, playing defensively at second and third base was a struggle for Calhoun despite a strong arm. How did he react? He spent countless hours improving his actions to the point where he can make up for below-average range and looks to be average at second base and possibly solid at third as well, although he probably won’t hit for enough power to profile there. Calhoun has his flaws, but he’s determined to do everything possible to minimize them and make himself into the best player he can be. He’s a vocal leader who not only is greater than the sum of his parts but makes the entire team better.
The only big issue with Calhoun and the reason the Rays were able to select him way down in the 17th round is that he has a strong commitment to the University of Arizona. The perception was that he had his heart set on attending Arizona, developing a strong relationship with coach Andy Lopez, and that it was going to be exceedingly difficult to convince him otherwise. The Rays will hope to defy the odds with a few outstanding conversations and as much money as they can possibly spare from their bonus pool. It was certainly a gamble on the Rays’ part drafting Calhoun, but the risk is not signing just a 17th round pick and the potential reward is a prospect with exponentially more potential than you could possibly expect from a player this late in the draft.