When Matt Carpenter signed with the Yankees on a MiLB deal last year, most people thought nothing of it. It’s hard to believe that Carpenter would go on to hit 15 HRs in just 128 at-bats and posting a wRC+ of 217, even higher than Aaron Judge’s historic 207 wRC+. After departing to sign a 2-year $12 million deal with the San Diego Padres, the Yankees have a mustache-shaped hole on their roster, but two candidates have stood out early in camp as potential replacements. Willie Calhoun and Rafael Ortega have both made strong impressions early on in camp, and as left-handed veteran bats, it’s easy to make the comparison to where Carpenter.
While historically great production isn’t a realistic expectation from a player signed on a MiLB deal, could one of the two emerge as a sparkplug off of the bench?
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Can Willie Calhoun Return To His 2019 Form?
When we look at what Matt Carpenter did so well, it was commanding the strike zone and pulling flyballs, but Calhoun seems to have a different approach than Carpenter does. Calhoun is an aggressive hitter with a very low K%, which explains his career BB% of 7.1% and a low 15.3% K%. A former top-100 prospect, Calhoun had a solid hit tool and good raw power, with a monster 2017 Triple-A campaign at the age of 22 where he hit .300, clobbered 31 HRs in just 128 games, and had a 133 wRC+. Calhoun is now entering his age 28 season, and while he isn’t a young budding prospect anymore, the Yankees see potential in that bat.
Back in 2019, Calhoun posted a 110 wRC+ and hit 21 HRs in just 83 games, an impressive pace that could have been improved at Yankee Stadium. Statcast’s Expected Home Run metric deems that he would’ve hit 26 HRs at Yankee Stadium in 2019, giving him a similar HR per game played rate as Matt Carpenter in 2022. There are some factors we need to adjust for here, most notably the juiced baseball in 2019 that caused HR rates to explode across the league, but Calhoun still possesses that raw power.
Since that 2019 season, Calhoun has just a 72 wRC+ and just 8 HRs in 126 games, battling injuries, inconsistencies, and swing issues. The most apparent swing issue is the fact that Calhoun no longer pulls the ball at the extreme rate he did back in 2019. With a 51.2% Pull% in 2019, it allowed him to get the most out of his barrels, and for someone with a low barrel rate and level swing, this is extremely vital to having a high SLG%. Calhoun has the hit tool necessary to hit around .260 with a .320-.330 OBP, but the problem is with finding consistent power.
Calhoun needs to be able to hit the ball into the seats consistently, and that comes with getting out in front to pull the ball but also finding consistent loft in your swing. 2019 was also the highest launch angle of his career, and while many Yankee fans loathe the launch angle-centric and home run-heavy approach the Yankees have, it’s important to note that Carpenter was a flyball king. At a 53.3% flyball%, Carpenter knew elevating the baseball was the best way to find success as a left-handed hitter at Yankee Stadium, and it churned out incredible results.
Again, the comparison to Carpenter is really just in terms of the role they play on the roster, not the production, but if Calhoun is able to find his HR swing again, the Yankees could get strong value from the journeyman outfielder. The biggest detraction from his game is his defense, with a career -14 DRS and -14 OAA in his 1,282 innings out in LF. His ability to only play RF for the Yankees most likely makes him a liability and less versatile than even Carpenter, who was able to play some 1B/3B in pinches for the Bronx Bombers.
With a .857 SLG% and .628 wOBA so far in Spring Training, Calhoun is definitely opening eyes at camp with his bat. He currently has the most hits on the Yankees in Spring Training, so if he can keep up the strong play at the dish, we could see him make the Opening Day roster. If the Yankees can get Calhoun to unlock the potential he had shown in 2019, and as a prospect, they could be looking at a 110-115 wRC+ bat that hits plenty of HRs, something the Yankees would love to have on their outfield depth chart.
There’s still plenty of time left in Spring Training for things to change, but most notably, there’s direct competition with Calhoun for this final bench spot in the form of Rafael Ortega.
Rafael Ortega Has The Perfect Approach For Yankee Stadium
As mentioned earlier with Carpenter, the ideal approach here includes pulled flyballs and strong plate discipline, and while I believe Calhoun possesses better raw power than Ortega, he doesn’t have the same patient approach. In a weird way, Ortega’s taken a backseat to Calhoun in Spring Training despite having great stats as well early on. He’s slugging north of 1.000 with an OBP of .538, and while Spring stats don’t count toward your season totals, we’re seeing why the Yankees brought him in on a MiLB deal. Ortega ranked in the 70th Percentile in Chase Rate, showing a more patient approach than Calhoun without striking out at a high clip either.
Ortega also has a 44.1% Pull% across his two seasons with the Cubs, with his 46.5% Pull% coming in his breakout 2021 campaign, where he posted a 122 wRC+ with 11 HRs in 103 games. He also has a sub-35% groundball rate in this timespan, posting exactly a 33.6% GB% in 2021 and 2022. The Yankees could look at Ortega and try to get him to pull the baseball in the air more since that approach would allow him to hit far more HRs than his smaller frame would be projected to hit. He certainly has a lower HR ceiling than Calhoun, but he might be the more complete player right now.
Ortega is turning 32 in May, meaning he’s about three and a half years older than Calhoun, so we’d look at him as someone with a lower ceiling but a higher floor. He’s the “safe” pick between the two, especially since he provides more defensive versatility. The Yankees played him in CF on Monday night, with a career -1 DRS and -2 OAA across all three outfield spots. Being a roughly league-average defensive player while covering all three outfield spots. Calhoun might be so unplayable defensively that the Yankees have to limit him to DH and the occasional start in RF, whereas Ortega can play all three outfield spots competently in a pinch.
We could also see Ortega rebound in terms of his baserunning value, as he’s been caught 13 times stealing in 37 attempts, a putrid 64.9% success rate. With bigger bases and new pickoff rules, perhaps Ortega could be a more effective base-stealer, something Calhoun can’t really bring to the table. When it comes to being a solid all-around player to have on your roster, Ortega checks a lot of those boxes, but the question becomes if his 2021 or 2022 are better indicators of his true talent level.
Rafael Ortega had just a 96 wRC+ for the Chicago Cubs in 2022, and while that doesn’t make him the worst player in the world, it certainly isn’t ideal for a primary bench bat on a World Series contender. Ortega cannot hit left-handed pitching, so the Cubs had him take 94% of his plate appearances against righties in 2022, and yet he still mustered just a 98 wRC+ against them. This is a stark contrast to the 141 wRC+ he had against RHP in 2021, but if he’s able to re-capture that magic, the Yankees could potentially use Ortega in LF against RHP to get more offense in a pinch.
The Yankees are also getting strong OBP totals from Ortega, with a .344 OBP since 2021 and a 10.6% BB%. He’s a selective hitter who rarely expands the strike zone, something the Yankees heavily value, evident by their league-best 10% BB% in 2022. He’s shown a great eye in Spring Training as well, with a 30.8% BB% in his first 13 PAs. He’s a tough out who can give a right-hander trouble, and it doesn’t take a crazy imagination to see how he might be a strong 4th outfielder for the Yankees. Aaron Hicks is entering 2023 on a shorter leash, and Ortega might be a candidate to take his job.
Whoever emerges as the best bench bat between the two, there’s a realistic chance for either player to provide an above-average wRC+, although Ortega does provide more utility through his glove and baserunning. That being said, I obviously don’t expect a 200 wRC+ season from either of the two since their median outcomes range between below-average to league-average based on the projection system you use. Both players currently have really strong cases to make the roster, but there’s still plenty of time for things to change, and while I mentioned earlier that Hicks’ job could be in jeopardy with a bad start to the season, he’s also had a strong Spring.
Aaron Hicks, Oswaldo Cabrera, Willie Calhoun, and Rafael Ortega could potentially combine to give the Yankees more production than they bargained for in LF, and that would ease a lot of lineup concerns. The Yankees have tough decisions to make ahead of Opening Day, but in this context, that’s an excellent problem to have.