A rebuild doesn’t scream at you from a box office marquee. That’s not how to sell one. You instead pitch hope, optimism, and the future with a series of dogged, deeply vetted roster moves, often executed away from the glare of a national media corps focused on the contending clubs. You try to explain these moves to your local fan base, and their interest level in the transaction tends to vary according to the name, projected impact, and other factors.
Against this backdrop and modern day baseball context, a rebuilding club not far removed from World Series glory returned to one of their familiar models earlier this month. Harkening back to the speed-defense impact of Cain-Dyson-Gore, the Kansas City Royals signed 28-year old CF Billy Hamilton in December to a one-year deal with a mutual option for 2020.
The speedster had spent his entire pro career in the Cincinnati organization, a 13-game call-up cameo in 2013, followed by five full major league seasons with the Reds. Hamilton isn’t always well loved, but he is certainly well known to both fantasy baseball players and the casual fan who watches highlight shows and occasionally comes to the ballpark. The first words that pop into your head when you hear his name are probably the same as mine. ‘Speed’. ‘Steals’. ‘Bags’. ‘Burner’. ‘Fast’.
In traditional category leagues, Hamilton is valued for his stolen bases, posting four straight 50 + SB seasons before dipping down to the still excellent total of 34 steals in 2018. For context, just eight other players cleared the 30 SB mark in 2018. Only three cleared the 40 mark and no one came within single digits of Hamilton’s 59 SB season in 2017 (2nd in MLB).
Because of the scarcity of stolen bases in today’s game, Hamilton is always watched and studied each season. His offensive flaws might put him on your waiver wire, but he usually pops up somewhere else within a week or two, right?
Hamilton seems to be the classic ‘polarizing asset’ with opinions on his value running the gamut, good-bad-not sure. And the general draft strategy toward him seems to shift and change each winter.
So let’s take a swing at his 2019 outlook. As he changes teams for the first time in his career, let’s look at Hamilton through the lens of three key questions. How does this move affect his Fantasy value and the value of other Royal outfielders? In a related vein, how does the lineup and team philosophy impact him? Was he a trade deadline chip, acquired for the July trading season?
PAYING FOR STEALS?
The Royals outfield is very crowded right now. RosterResource.com currently lists Hamilton as the starting CF, batting ninth in the order. Alex Gordon and Brian Goodwin are the projected starters in LF and RF, respectively. But, it’s obviously not that simple. The well-regarded Brett Phillips, acquired from Milwaukee in the Mike Moustakas trade last July, is a rising prospect with a CF pedigree.
Rosell Herrera, Jorge Bonifacio, utility man Chris Owings, and Jorge Soler (Listed at DH on RosterResource.com) can all be mentioned as well. As if that wasn’t a big enough jumble, the Royals also recently reunited with Terrance Gore, signing him to a major league deal on December 18. But, really, the Hamilton-Phillips debate is probably what matters most here.
Hamilton will come in as the starter, but, even if Phillips opens at Class AAA Omaha, ‘Bone’ (Nickname Listing: mlb.com) will have to perform to hold off the key piece that came back in last summer’s Mike Moustakas trade. And there are reasons to think that he can.
The move to Kaufman Stadium would seem to be a boost for Hamilton. The always excellent Mike Podhorzer at Fangraphs points out in a December 11 piece that Kaufman Stadium in K.C. plays much better than Cincinnati’s Great American Ball Park in the triples category.
This is a huge boost to Hamilton’s game-turning speed and aggression. His early Steamer projection has him down for nine triples, but it’s unclear if the team switch has caught up to his stat line. Hamilton’s career high of 11 triples in 2017 could easily be surpassed and I’m playing the over this summer.
In a farewell column focusing on Hamilton earlier this month, Paul Daugherty of the Cincinnati Enquirer uncovered a homemade 2018 stat, indicating that when Hamilton reached base via hit, walk, or error, he scored a run 44% of the time. The totals were 74 runs, reaching base 166 times in 2018.
Royals GM Dayton Moore was quoted in regard to team philosophy in the December 18 edition of the Kansas City Star. “We’re potentially capable of playing really good defense and being a threat on the base paths. We want to make sure we strike out less (and) get on base more.”
Now, here lies the key red flag (no pun intended), and the reason that Hamilton was non-tendered this winter. As the K.C. Star pointed out, his 132 strikeouts as a Red last year would have led the 2018 Royals. His career total of 554 punchouts has prevented a star from emerging. One suspects that Hamilton will continue to be up at the plate hacking, he bats .362 lifetime when he puts the first pitch in play. He doesn’t have a double-digit walk rate in any significant sample since 2012. His BB % of 8.3 last year (Strikeout Rate: 23.7%) was his career best in the major leagues, excluding his brief stint in 2013. The Royals will certainly try to instill more patience, but, at 28, it’s likely that Hamilton is who he is. This is where most of the risk is, borne out by last year’s .236 batting average.
With fellow burners Whit Merrifield (MLB SB Leader in 2018-45) and Adalberto Mondesi (32 SB in ’18) in the same lineup, it is clear that the Royals seek a return to their 2014-15 model, a team that put the ball in play and pressured the defense. On the other side of the ball, Hamilton’s brand of defensive excellence gives him a longer leash for playing time in the big gaps of Kauffman. The five-time Gold Glove Award finalist ranked fifth in the major leagues last season with 16 Outs Above Average, a metric grading how many outs an outfielder has saved.
I have not yet seen this scenario raised by a member of the Royals media corps, but this seems to me to be a classic ‘sign and flip’ opportunity for a front office that knows how to win and build a championship roster. This case gained more strength when the Royals signed Gore prior to Christmas. Gore is, in essence, ‘Hamilton Lite’, with a very similar game on the bases.
If Hamilton performs, Dayton Moore & Co. can set up a win-win where a contender will almost certainly be checking in at the July trade deadline. Hamilton’s speed and prowess on the basepaths could change a pennant race, a season, and a franchise. I could easily see him pinch-running in the World Series next fall. Would he be traded into a starting job? Probably not. But he could be a huge bench weapon, especially when you consider that his contract holds a MUTUAL option for 2020. I have not seen any reporting stating that the option is subject to change, based on a trade. Hamilton’s base 2019 salary of $5.25 million also pays out $100k bonuses beginning at 325 plate appearances. That bonus schedule continues in 25 PA intervals up to a ceiling of 575.
Meanwhile, in Kansas City, a trade would back more assets and opens up center field for Phillips. If Hamilton were back on the market next winter, the above scenario gives him a good job. It’s really a win-win-win across the board.
Hamilton’s switch from Queen City Red to Royal Blue has that feel of a sneaky good Fantasy pickup at 2019 drafts. A rebuilding Royals team that is flying under the radar, despite fantasy assets in hand (Your March Madness bracket sheet friends might lose track of Hamilton at draft time). A park that plays to triples and speed. A ballclub that seems inclined to turn Hamilton loose and utilize his strengths in their game planning. A potential chance to move into the leadoff role as the season unfolds, with the enhanced offensive opportunities that come with that spot. A relatively friendly contract that can be moved. Owner fatigue lingering from Hamilton’s underwhelming 2018 campaign.
Factoring in all of the above, I’m bullish on Hamilton.
I see him doing more than enough to get traded and find his way to the big stage of October baseball. You have to cover for him in the batting average category (‘19 Steamer Projection: .241 BA, 20.8 K %), but I see Hamilton putting up his fifth season of 50 + stolen bases in The Show, entertaining fans with an electric brand of outfield defense, and playing postseason ball for a contender.
(Photo by Carlos Herrera/Icon Sportswire)