Is Billy Hamilton Ready to Star If Reds Let Shin-Soo Choo Walk?

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Is Billy Hamilton Ready to Star If Reds Let Shin-Soo Choo Walk?
Frank Victores-USA TODAY Sports
Is Billy Hamilton ready to take over as the Reds' center fielder in 2014?

The Cincinnati Reds knew that they may only get one season of free-agent outfielder Shin-Soo Choo when they traded for him last December.

The acquisition also enabled the organization to take a more conservative approach in its development of prospect Billy Hamilton. 

Rather than rushing him to the major leagues to open the 2013 season after only a half-season at the Double-A level in 2012, signing Choo provided the Reds with the roster flexibility to keep Hamilton in Triple-A for a majority of the year. 

However, with Choo—ranked as the No. 3 free agent by MLB Trade Rumors—seeking more than the seven-year, $126 million contract that Jayson Werth received from the Nationals before the 2011 season, according to Jerry Crasnick of ESPN.com (via Twitter), he may be out of the Reds’ price range.

Hamilton’s lack of production in the minor leagues this past season was disappointing, though the 23-year-old outfielder was sensational as a September call-up.

The only question is whether Hamilton convinced the organization he’s ready for an everyday role next season.

Ready or not, it appears as though the job may finally be his with the Reds’ chances of signing Choo dwindling.

 

Defense: Check

As noted by Joel Sherman of the New York Post, the Reds believe that Hamilton is “ready to handle center field defensively.”  

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media

After moving from shortstop to center field last fall, Hamilton made noticeable improvements this year in regard to his jumps and routes to the ball. As one might expect given his speed, Hamilton has plus range in the outfield and can get to virtually any ball—provided it’s in the air and not over a fence. 

He still needs work on his first step, but the wheels help him compensate even when the route is sketchy. His arm action at shortstop was awkward and rushed at times, but it’s played well in center field, where he can afford to have a longer stroke on the backside.

 

September Speed

Hamilton took baseball by storm after reaching the major leagues as a September call-up, going 4-for-4 in stolen base attempts and scoring three runs as a pinch runner before logging his first career at-bat.

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media

The Reds gave Hamilton three starts over the final month of the season to see what he could do, and the 23-year-old didn’t disappoint by batting .500 (7-for-14) with four runs scored, two doubles and six stolen bases in those games.

Overall, Hamilton was 7-for-19 (.368) with nine runs scored and 13 stolen bases in 13 games.

During his time in The Show with the Reds, Hamilton demonstrated his ability to put constant pressure on opposing defenses thanks to feet that never stop moving on the field and a mindset geared toward taking an extra base whenever possible.

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media

Hamilton put himself on the map by stealing 103 bases in 135 games during his full-season debut at Low-A Daytona in 2011. Last season, he set a new professional record by swiping 155 bases in 132 games between High-A Bakersfield and Double-A Pensacola. He was also thrown out 37 times.

Believe it or not, Hamilton was actually more efficient on the basepaths this season. In 123 games at Triple-A Louisville, he stole 75 bases in 90 attempts (83.3 percent), not to mention the 13 he added after joining the Reds.

When Hamilton reaches base, everyone in the park knows he’s stealing. Yet, he still accomplishes the feat with relative ease.  

Hamilton has the potential to eclipse 100 stolen bases in a given season during his prime. However, that’s only if he hits enough to warrant everyday playing time.

 

The Deal Breaker 

Despite Hamilton’s ability to impact games on the basepaths, there are legitimate questions as to whether he’ll ever develop the hit tool needed to hold an everyday job in the major leagues.

As a switch-hitter, Hamilton has quick wrists from both sides of the plate, which allow him to generate above-average bat speed and be short to the ball. However, his overall inconsistency is worrisome; Hamilton struggles to keep his weight back and will lunge at too many offerings within the strike zone. And though he controls the zone relatively well, he also makes far too much weak contact for someone who projects as a dynamic leadoff hitter. 

Furthermore, Hamilton has a wiry frame at 6’0”, 160 pounds that lacks physical projection. Even if he continues to mature physically in the coming years, he’ll never be regarded as strong. He actually does a decent job creating backspin carry by driving through the baseball, especially from the left side of the plate, where he showcases a more leveraged swing.

However, there’s doubt as to whether he’ll ever develop the necessary strength to make consistent hard contact in the major leagues.

 

Oh, Billy: 2014 Outlook

If the Reds fail to re-sign Choo this winter, they have nothing to lose by deploying Hamilton as the center fielder on Opening Day—even if he’s not 100 percent ready.

Is Billy Hamilton ready to take over as the Reds' center fielder in 2014?

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Though his numbers weren’t particularly inspiring this past season, the Reds stuck to a strict plan and handled Hamilton’s development admirably by keeping him in the minor leagues until September. But after buying him an extra year in the minors with Choo’s acquisition, it’s now time for the organization to find out what it really has in Hamilton.

With speed that grades as a 90 on the 20-80 scouting scale, the 23-year-old boasts arguably the most dynamic tool among all prospects—and perhaps soon among all major leaguers. Even though he regressed at the dish this season at the Triple-A level, the hope is that his bat will come along as he gains experience against advanced pitching—as was the case in September. 

If he can develop into at least a league-average hitter, Hamilton should approach his high ceiling as one baseball’s premier top-of-the-order and up-the-middle players.

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