Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Billy Hamilton expectations vary between Reds and rankings

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“He’s the guy.”

Three words, the Walt Jocketty seal of approval, stamped upon the potential of Billy Hamilton, Cincinnati Red center fielder of the present, and the future. These three words followed the inevitable departure of Shin-Soo Choo to Texas, and with those three syllables, the Reds’ GM hoped to ease a troubled fan base. As if to say, don’t worry about the past, about who leaves. Because the next big thing isn’t coming; it’s here. It’s Billy.

Those are big expectations to place on small shoulders.

And elsewhere, those expectations are dwindling. This past week, MLB.com released its Top 10 Outfield Prospects. Just a season before, Hamilton had ranked #11 overall, accounting for all positions, all prospects, all franchises. Suddenly, in 2014, he ranked eighth…in the outfield.

Not only did Hamilton barely slide into MLB.com’s Top 10 outfield prospects, but he fell behind three division rivals in Oscar Taveras (St. Louis), Gregory Polanco (Pittsburgh), and Albert Amora (Chicago). Once the promising speedster lighting up Pensacola, it seems that Hamilton has become a man of tempered expectation, no longer just a  “must-see” but a “wait-and-see.”

The shift is understandable. At the conclusion of 2012, Hamilton had just hit .311/.410/.420 in single-A and AA ball, while simultaneously breaking Vince Coleman‘s long-standing record for most steals in a professional season. Before the kid could grow a full goatee, Hamilton represented something the game hadn’t seen in years: a devastating speedster that could change games on the base paths.

But if 2012 was the year he exploded onto the scene, 2013 was the season that the spotlight burnt a hole in his resume. Against AAA pitching, Hamilton hit a meager .256/.308/.343, collecting 42 less total bases in just nine less games than the prior season. He scored 37 less runs, compiled 30 less hits, and earned 48 less walks. And the question became: how much damage can he do on the base paths if he never reaches the bases?

With September, came hope. In nothing more than a late-season cup of coffee, Hamilton stole 13 bases for the Reds, scored game-winning runs like it was his job, and hit better than he had all season. Run Billy Run became more than a trending Twitter phrase; it became a mantra.

It became a reason to believe.

And the Reds still believe in Billy Hamilton: possible star. When Jocketty proclaimed, “He’s the guy,” he described a tour de force, a two-way player, that could make a difference in Cincinnati. “We feel confident he can be a good leadoff hitter,” Jocketty said to John Fay of Cincinnati.com. “He’ll give us great defense.”

On Wednesday, manager Bryan Price inspired hope for Hamilton by dropping a big name. Though he was careful not to directly compare Hamilton to future Hall-of-Famer Ichiro Suzuki, he did note how much of Suzuki’s breakthrough season in 2001 depended on what he called “the speed element.”

Speaking with Cincinnati.com’s John Fay, Price said of Suzuki circa 2001: “He wreaked havoc. Pitchers had to rush to the plate. They paid a lot of attention to him…He created a lot of scoring opportunities. I understand the importance of it.”

He hopes Hamilton can command the same attention, that his speed will force the defense to play tense, that his ability to race down the base paths will lead to infield hits and mental mistakes in the infield. Perhaps it’s a reasonable expectation.

But the breakthrough of Ichiro Suzuki was a matter of a new league, a new country, a new coastline. Not new skills.

Ichiro’s last season in Japan saw him hit .387/.460/.539, with established plate discipline, few strikeouts, and multitudes of hits. And those skills weren’t recent finds. Back in his age 22 season (the age Hamilton was last year), Suzuki still managed to his .356/.422/.504 with just as many walks as strikeouts. Speak to the competition in Japanese baseball all you like, but Suzuki already knew how to get on the base paths before he subjected them to his speed.

Hamilton isn’t there yet.

That’s why Jocketty provided a final caveat to his “He’s the guy” praise. He admitted, “The only question is how often he can get on base.”

Even if it is truly the only question, it’s a big question. It’s the difference between a good lead off hitter, and a speedster hoping the game allows him to steal second when he can’t reach first. It’s the reason expectations can vary so widely on Billy Hamilton.

There is hope to be had. If Hamilton can do what Jocketty promises, Choo’s departure won’t sting as much for Cincinnati. Andrelton Simmons of the Braves taught us last year that a defensive upgrade can be just as valuable to a team as an offensive surge. And Hamilton projects to play a much steadier center field than his predecessor.

But the latest rankings, and the unrest felt within a fan base upon failed attempts to nab Brett Gardner or Grady Sizemore, point to an undeniable truth this offseason. Billy Hamilton is a prospect; he is not a sure thing.

His potential remains debatable, a number on a sliding scale. But in Cincinnati, they’ll hope that overwhelming expectations, like a throw from the catcher to second base, will never catch up with Billy Hamilton.

That, quite simply, he’s the guy.

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