The Cincinnati Reds lost top free agent Shin-Soo Choo over the weekend, meaning center field prospect Billy Hamilton's timeline just sped up. Can the fastest man in baseball keep pace?
In the wake of Choo's departure to the Texas Rangers after inking a seven-year, $130 million deal, Reds general manager Walt Jocketty announced that Hamilton will be the team's everyday center fielder and leadoff hitter.
That's quite a lot to ask of a 23-year-old with all of 13 major league games on his resume, particularly for a contending club like the Reds, who have won 90-plus games and made the playoffs three of the past four seasons.
"He’s the guy," Jocketty said of Hamilton, per John Fay of the Cincinnati Enquirer. "We feel confident he can be a good leadoff hitter. He’ll give us great defense. The only question is how often he can get on base."
While Hamilton is known for his ludicrous speed, his hitting ability is more than just a question—it could be a legitimate concern for Cincinnati. After all, we're talking about a youngster whose development went backward upon reaching Triple-A for the first time in 2013. Hamilton, who is rail thin at 6'0" and 160 pounds, sported a triple-slash line of .256/.308/.343 while stealing "only" 75 bases.
That performance came after Hamilton hit .311/.410/.420 across High- and Double-A in 2012, while swiping a ridiculous 155 bases—the single-season record at any level in baseball history.
Well aware that they might have to rely heavily on him in 2014, the Reds sent Hamilton to Puerto Rico for winter ball with the directive to "get more at-bats and work more on his offense," as Jocketty told Mark Sheldon of MLB.com.
What was a good plan didn't turn out so well in the execution: Hamilton batted just .227 with a .284 on-base percentage. Yes, it was only 75 at-bats, but it was further evidence that Hamilton's ability and approach at the plate could be a significant challenge for the Reds, particularly if they're going to hit him in the top spot regularly.
On the other hand, Hamilton was quite the revelation for the Reds down the stretch in 2013. After getting called up following roster expansion in September, he stole 13 bases in 14 attempts, most of which came as a pinch runner late in games—when someone else did the getting-on-base part to allow Hamilton to do what he does best.
As for his September showing with the stick, here's more from Sheldon:
In his 13 big league games, Hamilton did bat .368 with two doubles and a .429 on-base percentage. For two of his starts, he had three-hit games. But he was also given favorable matchups by then-manager Dusty Baker. One of Hamilton's three-hit starts came against the talent-depleted Astros on Sept. 18. Another included a bunt single and an infield hit vs. the Pirates on Sept. 22.
To the point of the Reds putting Hamilton in position to avoid exposing his weaknesses, the switch-hitter saw only a single plate appearance from the right side. Throughout his ascension to the big leagues, Hamilton has struggled to hit right-handed, often posting a lower on-base percentage and a much worse strikeout-to-walk rate.
So while Hamilton has shown that he can, in fact, be a dynamic, disruptive force for the Reds in a small sample size, whether he will be ready to do so from Opening Day on in 2014 is far from a guarantee.
Even if Hamilton proves he's ready to contribute right away, the Reds are going to see a major impact on their lineup. Let's not forget, if Hamilton does hit in the top spot in Cincinnati's order, he'll have his work cut out for him in trying to replace Choo, who has become one of baseball's genuine on-base masters in recent years.
While hitting primarily leadoff last year, Choo owned a .423 OBP, which was only fourth-best in the sport. That helped Cincinnati produce an incredible .415 OBP from the No. 1 position in the lineup, which was far and away the best in baseball.
That's a big reason why the Reds offense was so very productive, including ranking in the top five in the National League in four very important aspects:
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While that stolen base total and ranking is a given to increase—heck, Hamilton could notch 67 steals all by himself, even if his OBP is barely north of .300—the other elements that were so significant to Cincy's 90-win season are bound to drop off.
All of which brings us to where the Cincinnati lineup stands now that Choo is officially gone and Hamilton is expected to take his place.
Clearly, one of the better groups of bats in the Senior Circuit a year ago won't fall apart, not when the likes of first baseman Joey Votto, right fielder Jay Bruce and second baseman Brandon Phillips still populate the front half of the one-through-nine. The return to health of left fielder Ryan Ludwick should help, too.
But even counting those four, the only starting players from 2013 who managed an OBP better than Bruce's .329 were Votto (.435) and Choo. In other words, the Reds need Hamilton to show he can use his legs to get on base via infield hits and bunts—in addition to walks and regular singles and extra-base hits—at least 33 to 35 percent of the time.
That's still well below Choo's efforts, but it would allow Hamilton to utilize his speed as a weapon and, more importantly, it would be an on-base percentage the big bats behind him could work with.
Will the Reds lineup be better in 2014 than it was in 2013?
If not, Cincinnati's lineup won't be able to maintain its standing in the top third—or maybe even the top half—of the NL in runs. With Choo out of the picture, there are other lineups that look better than the Reds' does right now, including those of the Cardinals, Rockies, Braves, Nationals, Dodgers and perhaps the Diamondbacks.
The Reds, remember, had a successful 2013 overall, but their 90 wins were only good enough for third place in the NL Central and a trip to the Wild Card Game, which they lost to their division mate Pittsburgh Pirates.
Any sort of slippage in 2014 could mean Cincinnati finishes closer to .500, and thus falls short of October. That's a lot to put on a young, inexperienced kid like Hamilton—no matter how quick he is.
The Reds, then, better hope Hamilton is as fast a learner as he is a runner.
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