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Cincinnati Reds Outfield: Pump the Brakes on Hamilton?

Billy Hamilton is fast. We get it. He swiped 103 bases at Low-A Dayton in 2011. In 2012, he stole 155 bases between High-A Bakersfield and Double-A Pensacola and then kicked in another 10 during a 17-game stint at the Arizona Fall League. Last season, he put another 75 notches in his belt at Triple-A Louisville, and when he was given his cup of coffee in the bigs, he swiped another 13 bases over the team’s final 13 games. Yeah, he’s pretty darn fast. But while he’s bathing in quickness rivaled only by the Flash, the Roman god Mercury and that little kid from The Incredibles, Hamilton may not be the 2014 fantasy goldmine that everybody seems to think.

While the Reds may have Hamilton penciled in as their starting center fielder and leadoff hitter, there are a number of things that give me pause with regard to drafting him. First off, there’s the obvious question as to whether or not the Reds are going to want to let his arbitration clock start ticking early. Would they not be foregoing an extra year of control by putting him on the Opening Day 25-man roster? The Reds may not be as budget-conscious as the Rays or A’s, but if Hamilton is the game-changer that so many tout him as, then wouldn’t they want to keep things economical for themselves?

Then, of course, there’s the .308 on-base percentage at Triple-A last year. Sure, he posted a mean .400-plus OBP at both Bakersfield and Pensacola, but he posted a .306 on-base percentage during his stint in the AFL and then followed it up with a .256/.308/.343 slash line with a .300 wOBA for Louisville. Is that the outlier or is he having trouble at the plate the tougher the competition gets? If his on-base percentage suffers, will they be happy to leave him installed atop their lineup like a modern day Vince Coleman or do they explore other options? The competition for the center field job, Chris Heisey and Skip Schumaker, isn’t that great, but a platoon of the two might not be the worst thing in the world, at least for the first two months while Hamilton either proves or disproves his worth in the minors.

And finally, let’s talk about his ADP. In the NFBC, he’s the 22nd outfielder off the board with a 77.05 mark. He’s at 69.66 over at Mock Draft Central and in other mocks I’ve done, I’ve seen him go as high as 53rd overall. In Monday’s FanGraphs mock, he was at 108, but that was still the sixth round of an 18-team draft. Even if you firmly believe that he will open the 2014 season in the majors and that his ability can win you the stolen base category all by himself, that’s still a pretty steep price to pay for a guy who will contribute in just two categories. Especially when you consider how abundant stolen bases have been over the last couple of seasons.

This isn’t to say that Hamilton won’t have an impact on the 2014 season, because he certainly will once he’s playing regularly. But be careful what you pay for him and be sure to follow every move of his this spring. He could be a ridiculously valuable commodity, but there’s certainly no guarantee that the value isn’t just a wee bit further down the road.

As for the rest of the Reds outfield, it’s much more simple. Jay Bruce is the starting right fielder and, despite the fact that, over the last two seasons, the walk rate is declining while the strikeouts are increasing, he’s still banging 30-plus home runs and there’s no one ready to supplant him. He still struggles against left-handed pitching and the significant drop in his fly ball rate might bear monitoring, but in a time when 30-homer guys no longer grow on trees (or in laboratory Petri dishes), he’s worth the grab in the early rounds of your draft.

Over in left field, we’ve got the return of Ryan Ludwick, whose 2013 season was decimated by an Opening Day shoulder injury. He eventually made it back to appear in 38 games last year, but the numbers weren’t good, nor do they pose an accurate representation of his abilities. Now fully healed and an entire winter to rebuild the strength, he should be able to return to the 20-home run power we’ve seen from him in the recent past. Steamer and fan projections appear to be pretty similar and given his walk and strikeout rates coupled with his usual plate discipline numbers, there’s little reason to believe that they aren’t a fair assessment. A mid-to late round selection seems about right this season.

We touched on the back-ups already and there really isn’t much to say about either of them. Heisey has some decent power potential, but his plate discipline is a bit shaky. Schumaker’s career .344 on-base percentage is decent, but with no power or speed, he’s better suited as a platoon partner and/or defensive replacement. Again, the lack of competition could be what keeps Hamilton up with the big club regardless of his spring performance, but we’ll just have to wait and see what happens in March.