MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Justice: Speed need may hasten Hamilton's arrival

Justice: Need could accelerate speedy Hamilton's arrival

Reds general manager Walt Jocketty recently watched 22-year-old Billy Hamilton lay down a beauty of a two-strike drag bunt and rocket to first base in 3.3 seconds.

That's world-class speed, boys and girls.

Wait, there's more.

After that drag bunt, Hamilton stole a base.

"We had him at 2.8 seconds to second," Jocketty said.

Come again?

"Yeah, that's what I said," Jocketty said.

Welcome to Walt Jocketty's winter fun.

He has an offseason to-do list that includes re-signing Ryan Ludwick and finding a closer that would allow him to move Aroldis Chapman to the rotation.

In the end, though, his really tough decision involves Billy Hamilton, who probably is the most intriguing prospect in baseball. Hamilton is the Reds' top prospect and No. 14 overall prospect, according to MLB.com.

He has the kind of dazzling speed that doesn't come along very often. It's speed that can change a game, a season, whatever.

He's fresh off a Minor League season in which he stole a record 155 bases in 132 games at Class A Bakersfield and Double-A Pensacola. In 2011, he stole 103 bases in 135 games at Class A Dayton.

Let's look inside those numbers:

• He was caught stealing 37 times this season for an 81 percent success rate. He also drew 86 walks and had a .411 on-base percentage. He struck out 113 times.
• In 2011, he was caught 20 times for an 84 percent success rate. He had 52 walks, 133 strikeouts and a .340 OBP.

Being that the Reds already have one of the best teams in baseball, their fans believe it's time to insert him at the top of the lineup.

Actually, they thought it was time last September.

There was so much noise about Hamilton being called up that Jocketty flew to Pensacola, Fla., to meet with Hamilton and explain why he wasn't being promoted.

The Reds wanted to shift him from shortstop to center field, and they wanted him to go to the instructional league and the Arizona Fall League to get comfortable with the switch.

Jocketty understood that Hamilton wanted to be part of the pennant race, and he simply wanted to look him in the eye and tell him that finishing the season in the Minors wasn't an indication that the Reds were less than thrilled with his season.

Now comes the really interesting decision.

In the traditional view of player development, Hamilton would spend the entire 2013 season -- or most of the season -- at Triple-A.

Even that would be pushing him, because he has played just 50 games above Class A.

There are two other factors playing into Jocketty's decision. One is the success that Mike Trout, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado had in 2012.

They were all rushed to the Major Leagues. They all succeeded, too. And they're all younger than Billy Hamilton.

Harper and Trout played 21 and 20 games, respectively, at Triple-A. Machado played 109 games at Double-A and made the jump to the Major Leagues without a stop in Triple-A.

What they all have in common is that they were fast-tracked to the Major Leagues, and they all held their own.

All of them struggled at times. But Harper and Machado helped their teams to the playoffs, and Trout will finish first or second in the American League Most Valuable Player Award balloting.

"Those guys are extremely good athletes and players," Jocketty said. "Certain guys can do it, and Billy might be one. He's a talented player with great instincts."

Another factor for Jocketty is need. The Reds had very few weaknesses in 2012, but leadoff hitter was one of them.

Manager Dusty Baker used seven different players in the top spot, and Cincinnati's leadoff men were last in the Majors in batting average (.208) and on-base percentage (.254).

Just the thought of adding someone with Hamilton's dazzling skill set is enough to throw your average Reds fan into a tizzy. He has already made Cincinnati's 2013 Spring Training the most interesting in all of baseball.

Jocketty will spend this winter shopping for a leadoff hitter. But finding someone to play for only a year or two until Hamilton is ready will be a challenge.

Regardless, the Reds are going to bring Hamilton to Spring Training and get a good, long look at him. If he opens the season as Cincinnati's leadoff hitter, it should not shock anyone.

Hamilton got off to a nice start in the Arizona Fall League, but ended up hitting .233. He still showed enough to be invited to the Rising Stars Game on Saturday.

"I think he has a chance to be an exciting leadoff hitter and to steal a tremendous amount of bases," Jocketty said. "He'll get on base enough to create havoc. It's just a matter of time. All he needs is experience."

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.