Billy Hamilton is one of the most discussed players in Major League Baseball. Every year there’s the question of whether he will finally have that breakthrough season, and, to this point, it hasn’t happened. But for the Kansas City Royals, running the risk on Hamilton finally having that big all-around season is the perfect gamble.
Monday afternoon, ESPN’s Buster Olney reported that the Royals agreed to a one-year, $5.25 million deal with Hamilton. So, what will the former Cincinnati Reds outfielder’s role be with the Royals in 2019?
Alex Gordon is the only outfielder on the Royals who is guaranteed to be in manager Ned Yost‘s lineup, so, from the get-go, Hamilton should be able to start the season in center field. And he gives the Royals one of the best defensive outfielders in the sport.
Hamilton is a speeding bullet going after flyballs and line drives, has a competent arm, and a long-range. He also made just two errors in 2018 and has made only 10 errors in his five full seasons in the majors. You’d be hard-pressed to go a week without a highlight of him snagging a fly ball. Meanwhile, Hamilton is just as captivating on the basepaths.
While he’s a career .245 hitter, Hamilton is as good as it gets when it comes to wreaking havoc on the basepaths. He has the speed to beat out groundballs, has totaled 264 stolen bases over the last five seasons — which includes four 55-plus seasons — and has the ability to change a game with his legs. He can also be utilized as a pinch runner late in games and put pressure on pitchers to throw strikes.
Of course, Hamilton’s career .245 average and general struggles at the plate are the lingering issue with his game and the reason why there’s always uncertainty concerning the switch-hitter’s future. He has a shaky swing, struggles to make contact, and, at times, waves at pitches. In fact, last season he finished with more strikeouts than hits (132:119). He also drew just 46 walks. When you can’t pose a respectable threat at the plate, it’s hard to stick in the majors. With that said, Hamilton’s ability to perform at a high level in everything outside of hitting makes him a name to keep tabs on. Once the Reds opted to let him hit free agency, many teams likely envisioned a way he could fit on their roster; the Royals feel they have a way for him to do so.
Hamilton has played on a consistent basis and/or started for the last five years with the Reds. At 28, he’s likely not going to get much better. But, for what it’s worth, Hamilton never had a consistent starting role in Cincinnati. He spent time in Triple-A and, at times, was a fourth outfielder, in addition to sometimes starting in center field. With the Royals, there’s no doubt that, barring a significant outfield signing or trade, he will be in their starting lineup on Opening Day.
Perhaps a change of scenery could be just what the doctor ordered for Hamilton. He’s going to a Royals team that’s coming off a 58-win season and in search of players to build around. Outside of blossoming star middle infielder Whit Merrifield and perennial All-Star catcher Salvador Perez, there are few position players to categorize as building blocks. Perhaps second baseman Adalberto Mondesi takes the next step in his development in 2019, but the Royals are, at least, a couple of years away from posing a potent offensive attack. And their pitching staff is among the worst in the sport.
Hamilton could hit leadoff, and if he garners more plate discipline, the Royals could stack the top of their order and try to get out to an early lead by pushing Hamilton across the basepaths. Now, say Hamilton excels in the leadoff hole, or simply plays well for the Royals, then management will have an interesting decision to make: hold onto Hamilton through the regular season, or get value for him in a trade?
The Royals are a team that tends to stay away from making expensive signings, when they can. Now, that doesn’t mean they haven’t signed players to multi-year deals in the past. They gave Gordon a four-year, $72 million deal after they won the World Series in 2015 and Ian Kennedy a five-year, $70 million deal in the same offseason. But the majority of the Royals core that won the World Series is gone because they were offered larger contracts from other teams. If Hamilton rakes with the Royals, he could position himself for a rich, multi-year payday next offseason. Will the Royals be willing to get in the dance to re-sign him? If not, then they should set out to acquire two young players from a playoff team in need of an outfielder at the trade deadline.
In the scenario that Hamilton struggles, or doesn’t progress his game, the Royals can let him walk at year’s end, and there’s no harm done on their end.
The talent is there with Hamilton, and the Royals are the perfect team to see if that talent can put together a complete season.