It would take a lot of guts to rate a prospect lower than first after he steals 250 bases over the last two seasons and this list won't do that. Billy Hamilton has been wreaking havoc on the base paths for opponents since Cincinnati drafted him out of high school in the second round in 2009. He set a new minor league record last season with 155 swipes while splitting the season between high-A and AA. To amass that many bags in 132 games he took off for second base at every opportunity in a non-blowout situation and frequently went after third. He comes into the season rated the #26 prospect in Scout.com's top 100.
What is easily forgotten in all of the excitement is that Hamilton could not have accomplished his feats without knowing the way to first base. His OB% jumped .070' to over .400 compared to the previous year at Dayton and his walk frequency nearly doubled to 14.2% against higher level pitching. He's a bad one for them to walk because he often turns them into "virtual triples" by swiping two bases during the next at-bat. His plate discipline continued to improve last season as he kept nearly the same OB after his promotion as he did before even though his average dropped .037'.
It's also easy to overlook that Hamilton could have swiped even more bags had he not frequently stretched hits for extra bases. He had 22 doubles, 14 triples and a couple of homers. Though not a power hitter his aggressiveness on the paths raised his SLG% over .400. One of his dingers was an inside-the-parker when he was timed rounding the bases in 13.8". That kind of speed will frequently pressure defenses and translate into a high batting average on balls in play at any level. Hamilton's BABIP was almost .400 in 2012.
Defensively he's struggled with consistency in the infield, but that can be forgotten for now because the Reds are in the process of converting him to center field where he started playing during the Arizona Fall League. There's no secret in the Reds agenda during the final year of newcomer Shin-soo Choo's contract. Hamilton certainly has the speed to provide great range and since most of his previous action was at shortstop it seems reasonable to think that there's some kind of arm there to work with. He'll be doing a lot of throwing drills while polishing fly ball routes this season at Louisville.
His glove isn't the only question right now. Lifetime he's struck out in around one of every five plate appearances on average. That's not horrible, but that experience has been limited to only 50 games above the single-A level and it could be exploited more as he advances. He's slight of frame (6'1"/160#) so there shouldn't be any aspirations of high home run totals and perhaps the absence of that distraction will help him focus on contact. His physique may cause some concerns regarding durability, but he's already hit the dirt almost 400 times in stolen base attempts and he turned down an SEC football scholarship, so there's good reason to believe the toughness is there.
When on base it would also be unreasonable to expect Hamilton to abuse big league batteries like he did in the lower levels. Still, he's been caught in less than 20% of his stolen base attempts and has disruptive speed for sure. He gets picked off a lot, but there's a trade-off because he also gets extra bags from errant attempts and bad throws to second. Also, Cincinnati doesn't really embrace the running game and hasn't had a team total of 100 SB in a season since the arrival of manager Dusty Baker. However, it will likely get more popular when Hamilton is the one doing the running.
On the other hand, Hamilton is projected as a leadoff hitter in a lineup that expects to have Brandon Phillips and Joey Votto behind him so it might be a good option to let his teammates do their thing. Whatever strategy is used, it figures that a high on-base frequency will yield a generous amount of trips across the plate. Hamilton has a lot of work to do in AAA this season, but the end goal is within his sights and the Reds are hopeful he'll be ready to go atop their lineup in 2014.
Top 30 Reds Prospects: No. 1
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