17. Sam Hilliard (371 points, 31 ballots)
Sam Hilliard made one of the biggest jumps between the mid-season 2017 and pre-season 2018. The 23-year-old lefty outfielder is intriguing for a number of reasons. First of all, he was a two-way player at Wichita State, though the Rockies picked him as a hitter in the 15th round of the 2015 draft. Secondly, he’s a 6’5”, 220 player built like a small forward with plus speed and arm grades. Finally, though Hilliard has been a little old for his level at each minor league stop to date, he has consistently put up strong offensive numbers.
In fact, Hilliard’s three minor league campaigns have produced 134, 128, and 126 wRC+ marks in order: his final line in 2017 with High-A Lancaster was .300/.360/.487 with 51 extra base hits and 37 steals (which was 3rd in the California League behind teammates Wes Rogers and Garrett Hampson) over 597 plate appearances. That’s good, though an elevated 25.8 K percent and a steadily lowering walk percentage over the last three years (14 to 11 to 8) give reason for pause.
Here’s some video courtesy of Baseball Census:
Hilliard first came to my attention when Jon Sickels of Minor League Ball gave him some SLEEPER ALERT! love in his preseason 2016 Rockies prospect list. My favorite part was the Corey Dickerson comp Jon put on his bat potential.
In terms of more recent scouting information, Hilliard is currently ranked 19th in the system by MLB.com, grading out at 50 or better on every tool except a 45 for Hit:
Hilliard’s left-handed raw power, speed and arm strength all grade as plus tools. His 6-foot-5 frame creates impressive leverage that he could utilize better by adding more loft to his swing. His extra-large frame comes with a naturally long swing, and he needs a more consistent approach after striking out in 30 percent of his plate appearances during his first two pro seasons.
Hilliard is surprisingly fast for a big man and has 20-20 potential. He runs well enough to cover ground in center field but fits better on the corners. His arm, which provided 88-92 mph fastballs in college, works anywhere in the outfield.
Wilson Karaman of Baseball Prospectus saw Hilliard several times over the 2017 season and had this to say when BP ranked Hilliard among the top 20 in the system:
Hilliard can be a tough nut to crack on first glance. He’s deceptively fast for a man built like a tight end, especially one with such an unassuming gait. He posted consistent plus times to first all year, however, while gliding into more catches you’d think off a slower start-up in center, too. He’s stretched up the middle, however, profiling best in right, where the former college pitcher’s arm rates an easy plus. The big question is how much he’ll hit; there’s plus raw power in the bag, but non-traditional hitting mechanics produce a long, lagging swing that lacks for impact bat speed. He shows a pronounced vulnerability to high, hard stuff, though he does manage to stay reasonably balanced and flick off-speed pitches that appear to have beaten him the opposite way.
Hilliard certainly has his adherents among the scouting community and some decent offensive numbers to back up the high tool evaluations. That’s a big reason why I ranked Hilliard 24th on my personal ballot as an intriguing major league reserve player, one that could see the Show by the end of 2019.
As stated above, Hilliard’s got some red flags in his offensive profile and has yet to face a tough offensive environment while being old for the level each time. He seems to be on track to get that opportunity next year with Double-A Hartford, which should be illuminating for the Rockies (who must decide whether to add him to the 40 man roster), fans, and prospect writers alike.