In the days leading up to Opening Day, we’ll be previewing The State Of The Reds at every single position on the field. Check out the previous installments of our Redleg Nation 2018 Season Preview series:
Since 2014 center field for the Cincinnati Reds has been branded with Billy Hamilton’s spectacular defense and his big time fan appeal. Hamilton has owned center field over the past four years aided mostly by his elite defense. With patience running thin over Hamilton’s offensive limitations, center field could transform from the familiar to the intriguing.
The Opening Day Starter: Billy Hamilton
Like it or not, Billy Hamilton is most likely going to be your center field starter for the majority of 2018. Hamilton is one of the best defensive center fielders in the majors. He led National League center fielders in defensive wins above replacement (1.2), defensive runs saved (9), and assists (13). His defense is his identity.
For how good Hamilton is defensively, he’s been just as bad offensively. The single most important stat when looking at Billy Hamilton as a leadoff hitter is how often he gets on base. In 2017 he was fourth last in the National League in on base percentage (.299). What’s even more alarming is that instead of Hamilton’s offensive numbers improving from 2016 to 2017, they seemingly dipped. His on base percentage fell from .321 to .299, his average dropped from .260 to .247, and his OPS plummeted from .664 to .634. That’s certainly not something you want to see from a young player going from his fourth year in the majors to his fifth.
Hamilton’s real value on offense is what he does between the bases. He was second in the National League in steals in 2017 with 59 and was only caught stealing 13 times. Billy can be an absolute game changer when he does actually get on base.
It will be interesting to see where Hamilton lands in the batting order this season. Although he has game changing speed, his past offensive numbers and his performance this spring don’t justify him being a leadoff hitter. He will most likely start the year in the leadoff spot with a short leash.
The Backup: Scott Schebler
This is where things get interesting. Schebler is really the only player in the crowded Reds’ outfield with the ability to take playing time away from Billy Hamilton. When he saw time in center field last season, Schebler was more than able to hold his own defensively. He didn’t commit an error and FanGraphs rated him with two defensive runs saved over the 15 games that he played.
Offensively, Schebler has the advantage. He clubbed 30 home runs last season, had a higher on base percentage than Hamilton (though not great), and had a higher OPS (.791 compared to .634). Though the majority of Schebler’s stat line was down from 2016 to 2017, many accredit much of that to a nagging shoulder injury. Schebler just brings more to the table offensively; you know you’re going to get a decent at bat out of him when he steps to the plate.
Some people believe that Schebler is a better fit to see the majority of playing time, or at least a fair share of playing time, in center field. He’s having a great spring and is healthy. Giving Schebler more time in center field will also allow the Reds to give more at bats and playing time to Jesse Winker who’s sharing time in right field with Schebler. Moving Schebler from right field to center field opens up the right field position. If Scott Schebler is solid in center field defensively and continues to contribute significantly more on offense than Billy Hamilton, you have to wonder how long the Reds go before they truly give him a shot to own the position.
The Future: Scott Schebler, Taylor Trammell
Well, this has a lot of variables to it. The future of center field could look completely different two months from now than it does today. Scott Schebler could be playing center field full time for a traded Billy Hamilton or based on performance alone. It’s what makes the position so intriguing.
That being said, I honestly don’t think that Billy Hamilton is the opening day center field starter in 2019. The Reds have already tried to trade him once and I can see them trying to unload him again. Billy also is who he is offensively…and there’s a better option.
Although Scott Schebler is a nice player capable of bridging the gap and evaluating to see just how high his ceiling is (and maybe use as a future trade chip), the long term center field position belongs to outfield prospect Taylor Trammell. The now 20 year old was drafted in the first round by the Reds in 2016. According to redsminorleagues.com he is the 4th rated prospect in the Reds’ system and the 68th rated prospect in all of baseball according to mlb.com prospect watch.
Trammell has split time in the minors at left field and center field. His 2017 minor league stat line was impressive:
Trammell continues to improve each year and continues to move up on prospect lists around the country. It’s only a matter of time before he cracks a spot on the Reds’ 40 man roster.
In my opinion, center field is going to be one of the more interesting positions to watch in 2018. What the Reds decide to do with Billy Hamilton, how Billy Hamilton performs offensively and where he bats in the lineup, and how Scott Schebler fits in and performs defensively are all things to pay attention to this season. Hopefully by the end of the season there are more questions answered about center field than there are asked.