CINCINNATI -- So much praise has been heaped on Reds shortstop prospect Billy Hamilton that fans often mistakenly ask or wonder if he's on the verge of a big league callup. Hamilton spent 2011 at the lower Class A level in Dayton. While he's essentially right around the corner geographically, the 21-year-old native of Mississippi still has a ways to go developmentally in his baseball career. But he's clearly shown he's going in the right direction, and fast. "He's an impressive young man," Reds general manager Walt Jocketty said.
Named the Reds' Minor League Player of the Year, Hamilton set an organization record and led all of professional baseball with 103 stolen bases. He had already broken the Dayton Dragons' franchise steals record -- in May. Hamilton batted .278 with 50 RBIs and led all Reds Minor Leaguers with 99 runs scored. Not a bad outcome, considering the leadoff hitter was hovering around a .200 average in May. "I first saw him this year, in May, and he was struggling offensively, mostly hitting left-handed," Jocketty said. "They were trying to teach him to switch-hit. He's natural right-handed." Hamilton batted .318 in the second half. "I knew to make my season successful, I would have to finish up very strong," Hamilton said. "Coaches kept telling me, '[It's not] how you start, but how you finish.' I kept that in my head and had a better second half than first half." Credit for Hamilton's midseason rebound was given to Dragons manager Delino DeShields, himself once a speedy middle infielder in the Majors. "Even when I was doing bad, he told me to keep my head up, and I believed in him and kept listening to him," Hamilton said. "I knew whatever he told was going to work. He got me through it -- him and [roving instructor] Eric Davis." Hamilton is an athletic talent but is trying to refine his skills on the bases. He had 18 doubles, nine triples and three homers last season. "It's a big weapon," Hamilton said of his speed. "If I hit a double, it can be a triple. I hit a lot of singles, and stolen bases helped me out. I get into scoring position for the guys batting behind me. I'm good at getting good jumps and I'm learning to not get as big of leads -- and more reading the pitcher and getting good jumps instead of guessing." Hamilton's athleticism has really been seen defensively, but his ability is still raw. While he has a knack of getting to balls few others can get to, he also committed 39 errors. Then again, Derek Jeter committed 56 errors during his first season of low Class A ball in the Yankees' organization. At the same level in 2000, current Reds three-time Gold Glove second baseman Brandon Phillips made 35 errors as a 19-year-old shortstop. "A lot of guys make errors in the early years of their career," Jocketty said. "He's someone we think very highly of. He's a great young man." During Spring Training, when he was summoned over from the Minor League camp, Hamilton wowed with a few slick plays. Many talk about an over-the-shoulder catch he made almost near the left-field wall that the left fielder lost in the sky. Improving defensively is something Hamilton worked on during winter ball this year in Puerto Rico. His time was limited to 10 games because of a broken bone in his right hand, but he said he performed well. Former Major League shortstop Dickie Thon worked with Hamilton on his throwing. "In 10 games, I had no errors," Hamilton said. "It was about slowing it down. During the season, I was rushing things. [Thon] was mainly telling me not to rush so much, let it come to me and take my time. I was rushing and trying to throw it real quick. It worked and helped out a lot. I will try to keep it up over here." There have been some reports that the Reds might project Hamilton as a future second baseman, but Jocketty debunked that speculation. "We've basically told our people to keep him at shortstop until he proves he can't play there," Jocketty said. "They're too hard to find -- quality, switch-hitting shortstops." A second-round pick in the 2009 First-Year Player Draft, Hamilton would seem a good bet to begin 2012 in high Class A Bakersfield. Finishing next season in Double-A wouldn't be out of the question if he gets off to a good start. That means Reds fans will have to keep patiently waiting for the young prospect they keep hearing about. The organization feels there should be a lot to like. "He's sharp," Jocketty said. "He has some leadership qualities to him, even at a young age."