You have no idea how close todays installment of 2014 MLB Season Preview was from becoming a celebration of all things Mike Trout. It would have put yesterdays appreciation of new Kansas City Royal Norichika Aoki to shame. Common sense prevailed for now at least – though I’ll no doubt be wearing my no. 27 jersey into enemy territory (read: Safeco Field) when I make the trip up to Seattle in May. As it is, my Los Angeles Angels preview today looks at one of Trout’s 2014 outfield mates, and a prime breakout candidate; after an impressive end to 2013, Kole Calhoun is touted to begin 2014 as Anaheim’s leadoff hitter and everyday right fielder.
Listed at a generous 5’10, the left-handed Kole Calhoun certainly didn’t look like a future big league regular when he was selected out of Arizona State by the Angels in the 8th round of the 2010 Draft – scouts dubbing him a “hard-nosed non-athletic grinder” (per Baseball Prospect Report). Even heading into 2013, John Sickel could only envision Calhoun as “a good fourth outfielder and it wouldn’t surprise me to see him become a coach or manager someday” – not exactly a glowing report, but testament to big league potential at least. Fast forward a year to 2014 however, and the now 26 year old Calhoun profiles to not just defy expectations as Anaheim’s starter in right field – joining Mike Trout and Josh Hamilton in a star-studded Angels outfield – but is also on track to become their everyday leadoff hitter.
Calhoun’s rapid ascension has occurred on the basis of his superb hitting at every level so far, including during his impressive 2013 rookie season. In his first full season of professional ball at Class A Empire in 2011, the diminutive Calhoun hit .324, blasted 22 HRs, stole 20 bases, and was subsequently named the organization’s minor league player of the year. Immediately promoted to Triple A Salt Lake City for 2012, Calhoun succeeded again in slashing .298/.369/.507, though both his HR and SB totals dropped off slightly. When the winter acquisition of Josh Hamilton blocked his surge to the majors in 2013, Calhoun quickly forced the Angels’ hand by crushing Triple A pitching at a .354/.430/.620 clip, pasting 12 HRs in 240 at-bats for good measure; with the big team under-performing once again, and beset by injuries, he was called up for good in late July.
In a 58 game stretch in which played most everyday (he amassed 49 starts), the supposed fourth outfielder cracked 8 HRs on his way to posting a .282/.347/.462 line (including an .889 OPS against lefties) – and quickly became one of the bright spots in what otherwise became another waste of a Mike Trout pre-arbitration year for the Angels franchise. Calhoun’s performance too, made quite the impression on the team’s GM Jerry Dipoto, who demonstrated his faith in the right fielder’s emergence by trading away fellow outfield competition Mark Trumbo and Peter Bourjos, upgrading the roster in other areas while clearing the way for Kole to breakout in 2014. As if his actions weren’t a vote of confidence enough, Dipoto took added his voice to the matter this Spring, saying of Calhoun “He does a lot of things well. He defends, he throws, he throws accurately, is a good baserunner, he swings, he’s got patience, he gets on base, he’s got power.” Not bad praise for a “grinder” 8th round pick who was expected to contribute little, if at all, at the big league level.
Having dropped Trout into the 2-hole midway through last season, the leadoff position in manager Mike Scioscia’s batting order is open for Calhoun to win this spring. Of his chance, Scioscia recently was quoted in saying “I think Cole is definitely a candidate… Whoever is hitting in front of Mike has to be a player who, first, is able to take advantage of being challenged and, second, bring some on-base to the table with decent speed to where they aren’t clogging up the bases.” Barring a spring disaster, Kalhoun should win the role; last year he possessed both an above-average BB% (9.5) walk rate and a below-average SO% (18.5%) whilst also defying the platoon splits often associated with lefties (.356 wOBA vs LHP, .329 wOBA vs RHP). He’s no slouch when it comes to power either, his ISO of .210+ at every stop (discounting his .179 in 222 PA with LAA) deterring pitchers from simply attacking him over the plate. With adequate speed on the basepaths too, Calhoun seems ideally suited to be driven in by his outfield mates – filling a need which haunted the Angels after Trout’s move last year.
Given the opportunity, it’s hard not to envision the scrappy Calhoun succeeding as he has done at every level so far. At 26 already, he’s unlikely to be a future star, but a prominent role as an above-average regular is more than attainable this season – should he continue the play which surprised so many in 2013. Whether it’s because of the Mike Trout Magic Dust, or his “hard-nosed non-athletic grinder” attitude, Calhoun seems ready to once and for all cast off the scouts’ dispersions. Watch for his breakout to poke out from under Trout’s mighty outfield shadow; unheralded as ever, Calhoun is coming.