Billy Hamilton doesn’t do anything slowly. Whether it’s running (he is generally regarded as the fastest man in all of baseball) or talking (he sounds like Mike Tyson crossed with the guy at the end of car commercials) or moving through the minor leagues, there isn’t anything Hamilton does at the same speed or most human beings.
Richard Justice of MLB.com wrote a piece on Hamilton over the weekend, making the case that the biggest decision that Cincinnati Reds GM Walt Jocketty has this off-season is what to do with their top prospect. I’d argue that it should be one of his easiest.
Being a general manager means having to make the right baseball decision despite questions from the media and clamoring from fans, the second of which is become a more difficult task with each passing day as the internet has provided fans with a much louder voice. In that sense, I agree with Justice’s argument.
But from a baseball standpoint, it’s a no-brainier. Billy Hamilton needs to return to the minor leagues, and he needs to spend the majority of the 2013 season there.
Given his exploits on the bases over the past two years, crossing the 100-steal barrier in 2011 before blowing it out of the water in 2012, it’s easy to forget that Hamilton is still fairly new to the game of baseball.
Hamilton has only been a full-time baseball player for around four years now. In high school, he split his time with football and was a Division I recruit in the SEC (Mississippi State) to play wide receiver. Additionally, he is still learning how to switch-hit, a change the Reds made after drafting him, and his weaker side is the left side, which he will need to use significantly more often against right-handed pitching.
In the article, Justice makes the case that the strong play of Bryce Harper, Mike Trout and Manny Machado in the majors in 2012 at such young ages is an argument that Hamilton could have the same type of success. I’d argue that it’s proof that he needs more time.
Harper was so dedicated to the game of baseball that he left high school two years early in order to get to the majors at 19. Manny Machado was playing on USA Baseball’s national teams in his teens. Hamilton doesn’t have nearly the baseball background or pedigree of this trio.
The good news is that Hamilton has a great feel for the game, and more importantly, a great feel for understanding his abilities. The progress Hamilton made with his plate discipline in 2012 shows just how well he has embraced his role as a catalyst.
But there is one final piece of development the Reds are asking out of Hamilton, and in doing so, must give him the time to do it properly.
The transition to center field is not as simple as many make it out to be. Yes, Hamilton will be able to outrun many of his mistakes, primarily when he doesn’t get a great jump or take a good route, enabling him to still have plus range in the outfield. But he’s still going to make plenty of mistakes.
The Arizona Fall League Rising Stars game over the weekend was a prime example of everything Hamilton can do, but also why he needs more time in the minors. Hamilton reached base three times, allowing him to change the game on the base paths (including a ridiculous delayed steal of third base, reminiscent of the plays the biggest kid in little league used to make), but he also had some adventures in the outfield.
On a drive hit by Yankees prospect Austin Romine, misplayed a ball off the wall that turned a double into a triple. The hardest play for an outfielder is anything involving a wall, and Hamilton has never had to deal with this obstacle before. This ball was especially tricky for Hamilton because, had it not been for the wall there, Hamilton probably would have tracked it down. He had a full head of steam and it was in his crosshairs before he ran out of room.
He got to the wall at the same time as the ball, and watch it ricochet back towards the infield as the slow-footed Romine legged out a triple. I tweeted at the time that Drew Stubbs keeps Romine to a double.
It’s a play that showed Hamilton’s rawness in the outfield. It’s probably the first time he’s come across that play. It’s not that he won’t learn how to play the wall better, but he’s not there yet. And he’s not going to be there by this spring.
There was a valid case made for bringing Hamilton up for the Reds playoff run this past fall, to be used exclusively as a pinch-runner. He will almost assuredly get that opportunity next September. But he’s not ready to play full-time in the majors just yet.
Hamilton needs both a full-season of at-bats against Triple-A pitching and a full-season of work in center field before he’s ready to join a major league team in a pennant race. This isn’t a last place team where he can take his lumps in the majors. This is a contending team and Hamilton will likely join them in position for a playoff run.
There is little doubt that Hamilton will develop as a center fielder and be just fine, if not great at the position, and should be the Reds starting center fielder on Opening Day of 2014, but the Reds need to do the right thing here and avoid the temptation of starting him in the majors this season.