The Reds are going to face lots of tough decisions over the next year and half or so, and the choices they make will have a big impact on how fun it is to watch the Reds for the next 5 years or more. I wouldn’t call what to do with Billy Hamilton the toughest of those, but maybe they could start with it to sort of get the decision making juices flowing.
I didn’t like that the Reds picked Billy Hamilton when they did, which was the second round in 2009. There were lots players that were taken after him that are clearly better (Paul Goldschmidt went in 8th round and Matt Carpenter in the 13th, how did that happen?) but you can’t really blame a team for that; you can say the same thing about most draft picks and the draft is always a bit of a crap shoot.
The issue with Billy Hamilton was his profile. If you are going to take a high school shortstop in the second round, it really should be because he’s a good hitter, preferably with a lot of power. The Reds picked Hamilton when he probably weighed 110 pounds soaking wet and wasn’t a great hitter, but he was incredibly fast. Stolen bases don’t mean that much overall (and you can’t steal first, as they say), and his defense wasn’t thought of very highly. So I didn’t really see the potential.
But in 2012, the light bulb went on in the Arizona Fall League: Billy Hamilton should play center field. More or less since the first day he trotted out to the outfield he’s been one of the best defensive players in the game, because he plays a great center field and it’s is a position where great defense takes a lot of runs off the board. Billy had two good years at the plate in the minors (2010 and 2012, posting an .830+ OPS in both), but other than that, he’s never really learned how to hit. He turned himself into a major league player with his defense.
I made the case here at RLN last year that the Reds should consider signing Billy Hamilton to a long-term, team-friendly contract. Given that he can’t hit much, he may be interested in some job security. Even if he hits like a pitcher, his defense alone makes him an average major league player, and a bargain at 8 years / $28 mil or something like that. The Reds are going to need some team friendly contracts if they are going to build another sustained winner, where they pay less than market rate for additional wins.
In September of 2015 the Reds picked up Tyler Holt off of waivers from the Indians. Holt was a 10th round draft pick out of Florida State the year after Billy, and came into pro ball with some of the same expectations: plus defender, plus speed, light bat. His speed and defense aren’t on the same level of Billy’s, however, the one thing that he definitely has on Billy is the ability to take a walk. For a light hitting speedster, walking 10% of the time (compared to Billy’s 5%) is a game changer.
So, on the one hand we have Hamilton, who basically hasn’t shown he can hit a lick, but if he ever learned to hit the ball harder could be an all-star (18% of hit batted balls are classified as “hard hit” by fangraphs, compared to Holt’s 26%. Holt also hits few fly balls). On the other we have Holt who is basically a poor-man’s Billy Hamilton when it comes to speed and defense, except he does well the one thing that Billy Hamilton needs to do so desperately: takes walks. As of right now, Baseball Reference has both of them on pace for about 1.5 win seasons (on the fringe of an MLB regular). If the Reds could somehow Voltron them together, you might be looking at a pretty complete player.
Holt is 27, while Billy will turn 26 later this season, but Holt is still basically a rookie despite playing in parts of three major league seasons. Holt is arbitration eligible in 2019, and so will be cheap for the Reds for at least the next three years, even if he plays up to his max potential (say a 3 win player). Billy is eligible for arb next year, and will get a little bit of a raise. The bigger issue is that the Reds only have him under team control right now for three more years (compared to 5 with Holt), which doesn’t get them very far into their planned window of winning ™. If Billy is going to be the center fielder for the next good Reds teams, he’s probably going to need a contract extension (as surely the Reds would try to trade him in 2018 if they weren’t going to extend him, before he got to his most expensive arb year).
I argued to extend Billy last year, and I still think it could make sense, but it’s definitely a gamble that someone, anyone, can improve his hitting. Because he’s getting so much value out of his defense, he’s got a lot of upside at the plate if he can ever tap into it. Holt clearly has less upside, but may be able to offer what many people have wanted out of Billy this whole time: a guy that walks, steals some bases, and plays pretty well in the field. And he’ll be cheap. If the Reds decide to go with Holt, they could even try to trade Hamilton, which would free up the money he’ll make over the next few years, and maybe net an interesting prospect.
So what do you think nation? Should the Reds plod on with the Billy Hamilton experiment? Maybe get him on some sort of strength training/ weight adding program to see if he can ever hit the ball with more authority? Do you like Holt? Is a guy that can get on base good enough at this point, after so many years of watching SO many Reds refuse to walk? Or should the Reds assume that the center fielder for the next good Reds teams isn’t currently on the roster, and plan accordingly. It’s a tough call, but it certainly won’t be the toughest.