Is Zack Cozart long for the shortstop position in Cincy? Or will Billy Hamilton usurp him? Mandatory Credit: Frank Victores-US PRESSWIRE
Just a small note before the preview: This will be the last regular post for a bit as I partake in the midseason prospect rankings that Jason began today with Catchers. You'll next see a regular post from me on Thursday, June 21. On to the preview:
Billy Hamilton - SS - Reds - Hamilton was a second round pick in the 2009 draft, and was signed away from a Mississippi State football scholarship. It's worked out well so far for Hamilton, as he stole 103 bases last year on his way to establishing himself as a top prospect. More athlete than baseball player for the most part, Hamilton has one plus tool in his belt, but what a tool it is. Though he struggled to switch-hit initially, Hamilton stuck with it and was rewarded by actually hitting better as a lefty than as a righty last season.
Read more on Hamilton after the jump...
It was a rough introduction to professional ball for Hamilton, as he OPS'd under 600 in his Rookie ball debut in 2009, striking out over 25% of the time. He showed marked improvement in his second attempt at Rookie ball, posting a .318/.383/.456 slash line in over 300 plate appearances. He also slashed his strikeout to 17.7% and showed an improved walk rate, going from 6.2% to 8.9%. He also nearly doubled his ISO rate to a still paltry .138, underscoring that power is not, and will not be a part of his game. 2011 showed some regression in his rate stats despite the gaudy steal totals, though his 103 were more than double his previous career high of 48 stolen bases. His strikeout rate jumped back over the 20% mark (21.8%), while his walk rate held steady (slight decline to 8.5%) and his ISO dipped to a meager .082. His full season slash line came out to .278/.340/.360 though that included a dreadful .195 average through May that he managed to pull up with a .316 average from that point forward. 2012 has been another giant step forward Hamilton at the plate. He's posting a career low strikeout rate, under 17% and has shown dramatic improvement in his walk rate, up to 12.5%, easily a career high. He's also out to set records on the basepaths, with 71 stolen bases this year and we're not even halfway done yet. He's stolen 71 bases in under 300 plate appearances. This pace is unfathomable, and while he went through a slight lull earlier in the season, he's been on a tear recently. Hamilton is not purely a volume thief either, as he has succeeded in 83% of his attempts.
I'm quite used to typing "speed is not a part of his game" at this point, as it is often the one aspect of a players game that is lacking...but this...this I am not used to. Speed is the only part of Hamilton's package that is close to full development, and that's not being fair to the phrase "full development." Hamilton is a freak of an athlete with off the charts speed, as easy of an 80 as you'll see in the game. He's the fastest player in the minors and will be the fastest player in the majors the second he receives his callup. He is by no means a complete package however, severely lacking in power, and has a ways to go with his hit tool. He should be able to sustain relatively decent averages even if he doesn't develop with the bat through a high number infield hits. He'll never boast any power but can obviously stretch some singles into doubles and doubles into triples. He will make his living wreaking havoc on the basepaths, something he should be able to do quite effectively. To put it simply, he is the most exciting player in the minor leagues, and quite possibly the majors as well. He gives meaning to the phrase "breathtaking speed." While he has the range to play...well, pretty much anywhere, Hamilton hands aren't soft enough nor does he have the arm for shortstop. He can reach most any ball, but his footwork can be sloppy and the low armslot he throws from often causes accuracy. He played second base prior to the 2011 season and his arm strength profiles better at that position, though many are clamoring to see him in centerfield. It's tantalizing to imagine how well his speed could play at that position, where his range could truly shine.
The future is bright for Hamilton, especially if he continues to rack up stolen bases at this clip. If the Reds decide to move him to second base or centerfield, it should accelerate his path to the majors as defense is part of what is holding him back. There are several players of whom it is said that they will single handedly win you the stolen base category, but none of them holds a candle to Hamilton. If you're in the market for speed, Hamilton IS the market. If the price is too high for your tastes now, it might be worth waiting for a Double-A promotion, to see if he'll struggle with the bat and trying to buy low. Additionally, part of Hamilton's gaudy stolen base total is taking advantage of the Hi-A catchers, although that is an admittedly small portion, so it might not have a huge effect when he moves up a level. Hamilton might not be a star quality player in terms of WAR or any measure like that, but if he gets on base, you won't want to leave the room. Pass on him at your own risk.
Kevin Goldstein/Baseball Prospectus