Best Bet: CF Billy Hamilton
What better place to start a series that features future leadoff hitters coming through the ranks than with the fastest man in professional baseball? Hamilton is not only the future, he is now the leadoff hitter and starting centerfielder for Cincinnati entering 2014. It is fairly easy to see why.
Hamilton stole the most bases ever in a professional baseball season. Let that sink in. Most. Ever. Hamilton stole 155 bases in 2012 between Single-A Bakersfield and Double-A Pensacola. Not even The Greatest of All-Time stole that many bases in a single season.
And the knack he has for stealing bases doesn’t even begin to describe the overall pressure he puts on a defense. Because any ball he puts in play has the potential to be a base hit, and any outfield hit could turn into extra bases, defensive players must get to the ball quickly and often will rush their throws, risking throwing errors. Defenders must be more aware of Hamilton at all times than arguably any player in the game. The former infielder is not only a one-tool player, however. Hamilton has adapted to centerfield well, and despite a weak throwing arm, should be a very good defensive player. The question is whether he will hit and walk enough to stick in the leadoff role.
Hamilton slumped at times last year and ended the Triple-A season with an underwhelming slash line of .256/.308/.343, far below his numbers from 2012. The biggest cause for concern was that his walk percentage dropped from an outstanding 14.2% two summers ago to a lackluster 6.9% in 2013.
Yet, there were still positive signs for Hamilton. He hit .301/.352/.425 leading off the ballgame and .298/.350/.439 leading off an inning. Also, while he had only 75 stolen bases in 2013, his 81.5% SB% was nearly identical to his record-breaking 2012 performance. Furthermore, while he certainly strikes out more than anyone would prefer from their leadoff hitter, 102 in 2013, his K% was almost exactly the same 18.6% it was in 2012, his best offensive season. It is even an improvement from the 21.8% he had in 2011. And while he will never be much of a power threat, his six home runs doubled his previous career high.
Finally, not only did Hamilton get stronger as the season went on, raising his average 40 points in the second half, he made a splash in the big leagues after a September call-up.
In just 13 games in the Major Leagues, the Mississippi native stole 13 bases. That ranked him third in all of the National League in the second half of the season. He started only three games, but had two three-hit games, including his first career start, in which he also stole four bases.
Hamilton is easily the best leadoff-hitting prospect in professional baseball, and he is likely on his way to becoming the best leadoff hitter in the game.
The speedster is off to a great start this spring with a slash line of .318/.444/.409 through the first nine games, with eight runs scored. He is also 6-for-6 in stolen base attempts. With the departure of Shin-Soo Choo, he will open the season in Cincinnati as the leadoff hitter and starting centerfielder.
Under the Radar: CF Junior Arias
While it is hard to imagine anyone other than Billy Hamilton leading off for the Reds in the years to come, keep an eye on outfield prospect Junior Arias. Much like Hamilton, Arias was very raw infielder at the start of his professional career and is making the transition to the outfield. A native of the Dominican Republic, Arias stole 60 bases in 2013 in 80-attempts between Low Class-A and High Class-A. The 22-year old also showed some pop, belting 15 home runs.
He still has a ton of work to do to make an impact in Cincinnati, however, walking a whopping 18 times all season. That equates to 3.5% of his plate appearances and contributed to an OBP of just .305. He also struck out 25.4% of the time for a total of 132 on the season. But hey – look what the Reds have done with Hamilton.