Cleveland Indians: Is Reds Outfielder Billy Hamilton a Fit?

Could the Cleveland Indians make a trade for Cincinnati Reds outfielder Billy Hamilton to fill their need in center field?

There aren’t a lot of holes on the Cleveland Indians roster at the moment but, anyone that watched the 2016 World Series would tell you that center field remains an area the team could look to upgrade this offseason.

One of the better names that could be available this winter is the Cincinnati Reds’ Billy Hamilton. According to Buster Olney of ESPN (Insider subscription required), the Reds are at least listening to offers for their young center fielder. Zach Buchanan of the Cincinnati Enquirer confirms interest in Hamilton though notes he won’t be cheap.

It should be no surprise that the Reds would have to be somewhat overwhelmed to trade away the 26-year-old Hamilton. He’s blossomed into one of the better center fielders in the game thanks to his plus defense and speed. He’s stolen at least 56 bases in each of his three full big league seasons and posted some of the best defensive marks for any center fielder in the majors.

Throw in the fact that Hamilton still has three years of control (via arbitration) remaining before free agency and one can see why the Reds would value him so highly. The big question is, though, just how good is Hamilton and should the Indians make a play to acquire him?

How Valuable is Hamilton?

There’s no denying Hamilton has a lot of value. He’s arguably the fastest and best baserunner in baseball and has proven to be one of the five best defensive center fielders in the majors the last three seasons.

However, his value is limited by the fact that his offensive game has been rather disappointing (to say the least) to this point in his career. Built around speed, he was never expected to show any power; however, he’s posted a mere .297 on-base percentage in 398 career games. Despite the 50-plus steals, Hamilton’s game will forever be limited if he can’t get on base to wreak havoc on pitchers and catchers.

Hamilton did have a mini-breakout in 2016, posting a .321 on-base percentage. Still not an ideal number, it was boosted by a vastly improved walk rate that jumped from 6.2 percent in 2015 to 7.8 percent in 2016. Even with the on-base jump, he still managed to post merely a .664 OPS and a 78 wRC+ (weighted runs created), which actually was slightly lower than his rookie number in 2014 (79 wRC+).

Despite the weak bat, Hamilton has produced two 3-win seasons (per Fangraphs) in three seasons, making him a top 15 center fielder in fWAR over that span. In 2016, he was worth 3.1 wins above replacement in just 119 games (again, per Fangraphs).

On the flip side, though, Baseball-Reference has him at zero 3-win seasons to date, posting a career high 2.8 rWAR in 2016. His 6.3 rWAR over the past three seasons is still good but falls well short of his 8.7 fWAR from Fangraphs (a 38 percent difference).

While that might scare some people, consider that current Tribe center fielder Tyler Naquin posted a 2.5 fWAR (Fangraphs) in 2016 while posting only a 0.9 rWAR (Baseball-Reference), a 177 percent difference. Not to go too deep into the differences between the two WAR values, one clear reason for the big gap with Naquin is the different defensive metrics used by each.

Fangraphs uses UZR (ultimate zone rating) for its defensive component while Baseball-Reference uses DRS (defensive runs saved). Naquin was horrific in centerfield according to DRS (-17) while he was actually rated as simply “bad” by UZR (-5.1). Hamilton, meanwhile, has rated out great via both metrics, which explains why the gap is a lot smaller.

Hamilton Worth the Cost?

No matter how you look at Hamilton, he is very valuable. The offense does retard his value some, but the overall package is one that’s hard to find in center field. He would be an upgrade for the Indians, so the question then becomes, just how much would he cost and is he worth that?

It’s impossible to say exactly what the Reds would need from the Indians to move Hamilton. As mentioned above they aren’t going to just give him away and need to be blown away in a sense to move him. Hamilton isn’t a Mike Trout though, and the Reds may not be ready to compete before Hamilton hits free agency so their “motivation” to move him likely won’t require a mega-package like the one that landed Andrew Miller, though it’s not going to be cheap.

The Indians did nearly trade the quartet of Francisco Mejia, Greg Allen, Shawn Armstrong, and Yu-Cheng Chang for Jonathan Lucroy last summer before he famously vetoed the trade and thus nixed the deal. I bring this deal up because it shows that the Indians were at least willing to part with these players to improve the club last year, so could they be again? Mejia may be the best prospect in the Indians system now while Chang and Allen are rising prospects in the Tribe system and Armstrong provides some major league pen depth with years of control.

On paper, this would seem to be more than a fair offer, one that actually seems too strong if you ask me. Lucroy was by far the better talent compared to Hamilton though the latter does have twice the control. While Hamilton’s defense would be a godsend to the Indians in center field, they may not be prepared to deal that much for a glove-first player, even one with three years of control left.

Even if the Indians aren’t willing to give up that much (they shouldn’t), they could offer something along those lines, maybe two of those four, and possibly entice the Reds. There’s at least enough here to get a conversation going.

Ultimately the Cleveland Indians should look at other options outside of Billy Hamilton. While his defense would be huge, his bat leaves so much to be desired that one could start to wonder if a Tyler Naquin/Abraham Almonte platoon might not be that far off Hamilton’s overall production. That’s not to say the Indians shouldn’t trade for Hamilton, but he probably shouldn’t be Option A this offseason.

Odds are Hamilton stays in Cincinnati so there shouldn’t be too much urgency by the Indians to get a deal done now. They should have the luxury of exploring the outfield market and seeing what all is out there for an upgrade. And who know, perhaps they come back to Billy Hamilton and recognize his value and do pull off a deal.

So what do you think, should the Cleveland Indians explore a Billy Hamilton trade with the Reds? Or do they need more offense from the position? How much are you willing to give up? Let us know in the comments below.

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