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Now preparing for the Arizona Fall League season as members of the Glendale Desert Dogs, they’ve each moved through the minor league system at a faster than normal pace. The trio spent the bulk of the 2016 season with Double-A Tulsa before earning promotions to Triple-A Oklahoma City in September. Being assigned to the AFL is a homecoming of sorts, as each played either high school or college ball in Arizona.
With all that they have in common, it’s not surprising that Bellinger, Calhoun and Verdugo are sharing living accommodations in their return to the Valley of the Sun.
“It’s an advantage to us,” Bellinger said about their living arrangement. “We’ve been playing together the last two years . . . We just talk about baseball and have fun with it.” Verdugo added, “I couldn’t ask for anybody better than those guys.”
Bellinger, 21, is the veteran of the group, with the lefthanded hitting first baseman/outfielder having just completed his fourth pro season. Son of former major league infielder Clay Bellinger, the Chandler, Ariz., native was drafted by the Dodgers in the fourth round in 2013.
Ranked as the Dodgers’ top prospect at midseason, Bellinger put up a strong campaign at Double-A with a .263/.359/.484 slash line, trailing only Calhoun in home runs (23) among Drillers hitters despite missing the season’s first month because of a hip impingement.
Verdugo, 20, a second-round pick in 2014 from a Tucson high school, has squeezed in time at each of six minor league levels in only three seasons. The lefthanded-hitting outfielder posted a .273/.336/.407 line with Double-A Tulsa in just his second full minor league season.
Calhoun, a fourth-round pick in 2015, led all junior college hitters in home runs (31) in 2014 in his lone season at Yavapai (Ariz.) JC. The lefthanded hitting second baseman, who also played at Arizona, made it to Double-A in his first full season, putting up a .254/.318/.469 slash line while leading the Texas League in RBIs (88) and finishing second in homers (27).
The three players give different reasons for their rapid progression through the Dodgers system. Calhoun attributes his success to getting into a comfort zone by becoming more familiar with the group of teammates that he’s played with in pro ball. For Verdugo, it was the Dodgers staff pushing him to be a better ballplayer, while Bellinger credits his time spent around big league clubhouses as a youth, learning how to respect the game on and off the field.
This quick movement for their better prospects is not uncommon for the Dodgers organization. For example, prohibitive Rookie of the Year favorite Corey Seager spent just over three years in the minors before making the big league team for good.
“Our organization wants to move players who demonstrate the ability to move,” said John Shoemaker, the Dodgers’ “captain of player development” and Arizona League manager.
Like nearly every other young hitter, Bellinger, Calhoun and Verdugo have each made some adjustments to their swing or approach at the plate to get them to where they’re at now. For Calhoun, it was more of having a better plan when he went to the plate and then sticking to the plan, while Bellinger made mechanical changes with his hands to create a more consistent path to the ball.
Verdugo’s current swing is a culmination of several modifications he’s made during his career. He began putting his toe on the ground during his rookie season and then added a leg kick the next year in an attempt to hit with more power. The leg kick caused him to drift forward and move his head too much, limiting his ability to see the ball, but he finally was able to settle on a combination that worked for him this season.
“I combined the leg kick with just doing a toe tap,” Verdugo said. “It ended up working really well. I’ve stuck with it since and haven’t looked back.”
Verdugo also made a lot of changes related to the mental aspect of the game that have helped him succeed, first solidifying the necessary work ethic under Shoemaker in his rookie year and then in working with trainer Kalie Swain while at low Class A just to learn how to better get through the inevitable tough stretches.
Bellinger said it’s the quality of coaches in the system that help the players better handle the mental aspects of the game, while Calhoun credits the organization’s philosophy in helping him become a professional.
“The Dodgers help us by letting us be our own person and not putting too many limitations on us,” Calhoun said. “It helps us relax and lets us breathe a little off the field . . . We want to be treated as professionals . . . The Dodgers having that trust for us is huge.”
This triumvirate of Dodgers prospects each has their own goals for what they want to accomplish during the six weeks of Arizona Fall League. Verdugo, the youngest of the group, just wants to get more at-bats against quality pitching, making adjustments and being consistent. Bellinger is primarily hoping to make up for time lost to his early season injury while also working on his two-strike approach and defense.
The primary motive for Calhoun’s time in Arizona is to allow him to continue to improve his defense at second base, a relatively new position since he first started in pro ball. He’ll always be known as a bat-first guy, but after leading Tulsa in errors (21) in 2016 there’s still plenty of room for improvement in the field. But the Dodgers also see changes they’d like to see in Calhoun’s approach at the plate.
“What Willie can do very well is pull the ball,” Shoemaker said, “and we’re trying to get him to be able to use all fields and to adjust to different type of pitching.”
With plenty of friends and family in or near Arizona, all three Dodgers prospects are looking forward to having frequent supporters from the crowd at AFL games.
“I know my friends and family are excited to come out and watch me play a lot,” Bellinger said. “It’s a fun time from what I’ve heard and I’m looking forward to it. It’s good baseball and good competition, so it should be fun.”
This year’s AFL managerial lineup includes:
Glendale Desert Dogs – Aaron Rowand (White Sox)
Mesa Solar Sox – Ryan Christenson (Athletics)
Peoria Javelinas – Jared Sandberg (Rays)
Salt River Rafters – Tony Diaz (Rockies)
Scottsdale Scorpions – Tom Goodwin (Mets)
Surprise Saguaros – Carlos Febles (Red Sox)
The Saguaros return to their home stadium after a one-year exile caused by stadium remodeling, requiring a temporary relocation to share the facilities at Salt River Fields.