Not a Rookie: Alberto Callaspo
One of the few bright spots amidst the darkness in Kansas City over the last two years has been the development of Alberto Callaspo. Considered a major disappointment in Arizona, he's blossomed in a tough environment, to the point where the Royals moved former franchise savior Alex Gordon off third base partly so that Callaspo could man the position. How did this happen? Let's find out.
Alberto Callaspo was signed by the Angels out of Venezuela in 2001. Assigned to Provo in the Pioneer League to begin his North American career, he hit .338/.374/.488 with 13 steals and 10 triples in 70 games, with a 17/14 BB/K ratio in 299 at-bats. Scouts also gave him good marks on defense, saying that he had the range and hands for shortstop although his arm worked best at second. I gave him a Grade B-, an aggressive mark for a rookie ball guy, and wrote that Callaspo had a chance to be a "special" player. I was extremely intrigued by his tiny strikeout rate in combination with the speed and gap power.
Moved up to Cedar Rapids in the Midwest League for '03, Callaspo hit .327/.377/.428 with 20 steals, 42 walks, and only 28 strikeouts in 514 at-bats. He hit just two homers, but knocked 38 doubles, very credible numbers in the pro-pitching Midwest League. I moved his rating up to a Grade B in the '04 book, writing that I liked him " a lot." Scouts said he needed work turning the double play, but most expected his glove to be fine with more experience, and the bat was obviously intriguing.
The Angels skipped Callaspo directly to Double-A for 2004, to give him a chance to play shortstop regularly without Erick Aybar (sent to the California League) getting in the way. Callaspo responded with a .282/.336/.373 mark, losing 96 points in OPS, but it wasn't bad for skipping a league at age 21. He maintained excellent contact hitting ability with 47 walks and just 25 strikeouts in 550 at-bats. His defense drew mixed reviews, and word entering '05 was that Callaspo would move back to second base. I kept him with a Grade B rating.
Callaspo returned to Arkansas to begin '05, hitting .297/.346/.409 in 89 games. Promoted to Triple-A, he hit .316/.345/.448 in 50 contests. He combined to post a 38/30 BB/K ratio in 562 at-bats. He settled back in at second base and drew strong defensive reviews from scouts. On the other hand, he stole just 11 bases and was caught 13 times. His running speed was starting to slip a bit. I gave him a Grade B- in the '06 book, writing that he might fit best as a super-utility player.
In March '06 Callaspo was traded to the Diamondbacks for pitcher Jason Bulger. The Angels needed some bullpen reinforcement, and Callaspo was blocked in Anaheim. Sent to Triple-A, he hit .337/.404/.478 for Tucson, with 24 doubles, 12 triples, 56 walks, and only 27 strikeouts in 490 at-bats, making him the toughest hitter to strike out in the minors. He hit .238/.298/.310 in 23 games for Arizona, and was looking like a big part of the future for the Diamondbacks. I boosted his rating back up to a Grade B.
'07 was a disaster. Although he hit .341/.406/.491 in 59 games of Triple-A ball, he hit just .215/.265/.271 in 56 games for Arizona. He was bothered by nagging injuries including hamstring and groin trouble. His defense was criticized. More importantly, rumbles about personal issues and possible drinking problems erupted into a full-fledged crisis in May, when he was arrested for assaulting his wife. He was sent for counseling. The personal baggage and his subpar major league performance turned off the Diamondbacks, and he was shipped to Kansas City in December for pitcher Billy Buckner.
Callaspo was an effective hitter for the Royals in 2008, hitting .305/.361/.371 in 74 games as a utility player, with a 19/14 BB/K ratio in 213 at-bats. The season was marred by an arrest for drunk driving. He spent two months on the disabled list as a result, and entered '09 as a big questionmark.
He ended up taking over the majority of the playing time at second base last year, hitting .300/.356/.457 with 41 doubles, 11 homers, and a 52/51 BB/K in 576 at-bats. He's at .300/.333/.493 this year, splitting time between third base and second base.
Callaspo's defense at second is notoriously atrocious; both scouts and statheads hate his glove. He's not horrendously error-prone (indeed, he posted a 1.000 fielding percentage in 46 games in 2008), but his range is terrible and he seems to make mistakes at the worst possible times. His glove isn't so bad at third, and I think he can hold that position down. What's ironic about his glove is that his defense at second was one of his best attributes when he was in the low minors. As he's matured physically, he's lost a lot of speed and quickness resulting in reduced range.
On the other hand, he's gained physical strength and power. He drives the ball more often now. Although he was never a walk machine, he always had a good grasp of the strike zone and a knack for contact, being very difficult to strikeout or overpower. His K/PA ratios were outstanding in the minors; this is another example of a guy with a good BB/K/AB profile blossoming.
What comes next? He'll need to keep his personal demons under control, and that's impossible to predict. He's on a 20-homer pace this year; I don't know if he can maintain that, but I bet he can hit .300 with 40 doubles and 10-15 homers for years to come, barring a serious injury or personal meltdown. A lot of Royals fans think he should be traded now while his value is high. I agreed with that sentiment six months ago, but now I'm not so sure. There is a decent chance he could win a batting title someday.