Hamilton heads promising crop of Reds prospects

Speedy switch-hitter closing in on big league callup, Cingrani highlights young arms

Hamilton heads promising crop of Reds prospects

The future success of every Major League team lies largely in its Minor League pipeline. With that in mind, MLB.com is looking at each team's farm system, from the Top 20 Prospects to under-the-radar types.

It may seem like a misprint, but it's real. Billy Hamilton set a record with 155 stolen bases between two levels last year, and now he's back to prepare his game for a transition to the big leagues. Hamilton, one of the most dynamic prospects in baseball, fronts a rich collection of talent for the Reds.

Cincinnati hopes to get Hamilton to the big leagues as soon as possible, and he's moved to center field in an effort to let his speed work for him. The switch-hitter batted .286 with 51 steals in 50 games for Double-A Pensacola last season, proving that he can be a force at the upper levels.

Hamilton had previously played shortstop, but Chris Buckley, the Reds' senior director of amateur scouting, believes that the speedster will have no problems at his new position.

"There's some little coaching things he's going to have to learn, but he's a terrific athlete," said Buckley. "He's going to be out there early. He's going to be in big league camp and I'm sure the staff will work with him. I don't think it will take him real long to be an outstanding center fielder."

Hamilton has batted a combined .289 through four Minor League seasons, and he has stolen 320 bases in 379 games as a professional. Now, he just needs to do it again. If Hamilton shows that he can handle center field and gets off to a hot start with the bat, he could tempt the Reds into calling him up.

The Reds also have a group of impressive starting pitchers coursing through their system, and Tony Cingrani managed to make it to the Majors in his first full professional season. Cingrani went 10-4 with a 1.73 ERA between two levels last season before earning a late-season callup.

Cincinnati selected Robert Stephenson with the 27th overall pick in the 2011 First-Year Player Draft -- two rounds before Cingrani -- and the right-hander made some progress last season. Stephenson, a high school draftee, may take a few more seasons to work up to his full potential.

The Reds also have a potential high-leverage arm in Daniel Corcino, and they're trying to figure out whether he can stick in the starting rotation in the big leagues. Throw in Nick Travieso, the team's latest first-round draftee, and Cincinnati has acquired strength in numbers on the mound.

"You have to sign a lot of pitchers to get a few," said Buckley. "That's where the attrition rates are in baseball, but you can't be afraid to keep picking them because someone got hurt. The reason the Giants are so good is [Tim] Lincecum, [Matt] Cain and [Madison] Bumgarner, and they developed those guys. We're getting there, with [Aroldis] Chapman, Mike Leake and [Johnny] Cueto."

Top 20

Infielder Ryan Wright had a mixed season last year, thriving for Class A Dayton and struggling after jumping a notch to Class A Bakersfield. Wright hit 10 home runs last year and stole 17 bases while only being caught twice, but he'll have to prove he can handle hitting at the higher levels.

Henry Rodriguez played at two levels in the Minors and made it to the Majors last season, and he may have a big league future as a utility man. The Reds also have high hopes for outfielder Ryan LaMarre, who struggled with a bout of plantar fasciitis last season but played through the pain.

Sean Buckley gives the Reds another outfielder with a chance to move quickly, and Jesse Winker is one of the best young hitters in the system. Winker batted .338 with a .443 on-base percentage in the rookie-level Pioneer League last year, setting a high bar for his second pro season.

First baseman Neftali Soto had drilled some big power numbers in the lower levels, but he was met with a wall of resistance at Triple-A Louisville. Soto hit .246 with 14 homers in 122 games for Louisville, but the Reds are set at first base and can allow him time to develop.

Under the radar

Devin Lohman always had to play second base when playing alongside Hamilton, but now he'll get to shift back over to shortstop. Lohman, a former third-round draftee, stole 34 bases and batted .257 with 14 home runs and a .353 on-base percentage for Bakersfield last season.

Justin Freeman controlled the strike zone and thrived as a lock-down reliever for Pensacola last season, and he may have a future in the big leagues if he can continue to limit the walks. Freeman struck out 68 batters and walked just 16 last season, notching a 2.91 ERA and 16 saves.

Predictions

Pitcher of the Year
Cingrani was incredible last season, carving up the Double-A Southern League to the tune of a 2.12 ERA. The left-hander has 252 strikeouts in 197 1/3 innings as a professional, and if he can keep carving up Minor League hitters, it won't be long until he's in the Major Leagues for good.

"There's still some things Tony has to learn, throw his breaking ball for strikes and have some more confidence in it," Buckley said. "He's a very aggressive guy that has a good fastball and a good changeup. He got to the big leagues pretty quickly. We're hoping he's a starter."

Hitter of the Year
How can you pick against Hamilton? Hamilton, pardon the pun, is on the fast track to the Majors and could post stolen-base totals not seen since the heyday of Rickey Henderson and Vince Coleman. The only question, for now, is whether Hamilton will be on base enough to steal as often as he'd like.

Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.