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Don’t Grab Billy Hamilton or: Why Not Every Injury Means A Top Prospect Is Coming Up

The glut of Spring Training injuries is, by definition, behind us, which means in-season injuries are the order of the day. Opening Night came and went without anything notable happening, as did the first slate of games on Monday, but by dinner time 2013’s first serious injury had occurred.

The exact extent of Ryan Ludwick’s dislocated shoulder is still unknown and will be until the results of an MRI are read, which won’t happen until the swelling goes down. Whether Ludwick will miss 2-3 weeks the way Jason Michaels did in 2011 or 3-4 months the way Jacoby Ellsbury did last season depends largely on how much damage was done to the labrum and surrounding connective tissue when the ball moved away from the socket as well as whether surgery is required to fix it. It is too early to say for certain, but if I had to guess, I wouldn’t expect Ludwick back this month. Given Ludwick’s position, the likelihood of an extended absence, and the position of the team’s top prospect – one Billy Hamilton – everyone should make a major free agent bid for Hamilton, right?

Not a chance.

For those in leagues with a minor league system, whether Ottoneu or otherwise, Hamilton almost certainly went on draft day and rightly so. He has upper-echelon speed and has backed it up with strong on-base skills in the low minors; when he does get his call-up, he’ll be tremendously fun to watch, but throwing a 22-year-old who has yet to play above Double-A onto a contender’s roster simply because the major league starter got hurt is a recipe for trouble.

Dealing with Hamilton specifically, there are a couple other factors that make him a bad pickup right now. First, while he’s listed as an outfielder now, his stint in centerfield in the Arizona Fall League was his first time there in the minors. His speed will help him make up for bad routes in much the same way Carlos Gomez’s does, but the Reds probably aren’t terribly keen on having him learn how to play the outfield while also adapting to the speed of the major league game. Second, Hamilton isn’t even on the 40-man roster, so unless Ludwick heads directly to the 60-day disabled list, the Reds would need to shuffle someone off the roster even as their bullpen pulled yeoman duty in Monday’s extra innings loss to the Angels. This would both start Hamilton’s service clock and burn an option, neither are the end of the world if the Reds were determined that Hamilton was definitely ready to come up, but with that in question, it becomes less palatable.

There are other reasons Hamilton makes little sense as a call-up, and by extension as a waiver wire claim, but at this point it would just beating a dead horse to continue listing them. Chris Heisey is a capable backup and might even be a decent fantasy option if he’s only started against right-handers, as he hits far better against them (.277/.332/.462 with 25 HR in 654 career PA) than he does against lefties (.214/.272/.376 with 8 HR in 255 career PA).

The broader point here is that there’s far more that goes into teams’ calculations as to whether or not to call up a notable prospect than simply the position of the injured player and the position of the prospect. The extent of the injury is a major piece, as few teams are going to burn an option to cover for someone on the 7-day concussion list, but more may be willing to do so for an injury that has a recovery time measured in months rather than weeks. While there’s no single indicator, whether or not someone is on the 40-man roster is as good a clue as any. If there’s an obvious fill-in already there, it becomes far less likely that the team is going to go past them to pull up a prospect from the low- or mid-minors, especially in cases of injuries that don’t appear to be season-ending.

Some prospects are obviously not coming up: Carlos Correa, Miguel Sano, and Lucas Giolito will all be incredible talents some day, but it would take a positively calamitous set of circumstances – something like a virus that only attacked non-Dominican Twins outfielders – for one of them to see the majors this year. In other cases, it’s safe to assume that the top prospect is the only real option a team has. If Elvis Andrus were to tear his Achilles’ tendon while running the bases this week and the Rangers didn’t call up Jurickson Profar to replace him, there would be nothing short of an inquisition as to why they’d leave their best option in the minors when he’s already on the 40-man roster.

The tough choices are in these in-between cases, like Hamilton or even someone like Oscar Taveras. The Cardinals’ slugger is as close to big-league-ready as anyone in the minors and while I think he’d come up to take over if Ludwick’s injury had happened to Matt Holliday or Jon Jay, a strained hamstring or tweaked ankle may not be enough to warrant his arrival. Adron Chambers may not be a big box office draw, but he has some major league experience, he’s already on the 40-man, and he can play all three outfield positions credibly. There would be an uproar about it, to be sure, but I’m relatively confident the likely fan reaction isn’t something terribly high on most front offices’ decision-making trees.

Keeper and dynasty players have an advantage here since these players are probably long gone and their owners don’t need to worry about whether or not they’ll be added to an active roster until the team announces it. Redrafters, especially those in traditional first-come-first-serve waiver models, are the ones who have to suffer this guessing game. I wish there were a single factor to look at, but there flat out isn’t. The prescription here is this: Wait until injury severity is announced, check if there’s a reasonable option already on the roster, and remember that for every Bryce Harper there’s a Jesus Montero. Not every prospect hits immediately and most injury-enforced call-ups come with a clock: The starter will be back at some point, which limits the team’s need to be patient, even with a budding star.