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Colorado Rockies prospect rankings: No. 11, Sam Hilliard

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Hilliard brings significant upside and a lot of risk

11. Sam Hilliard (585 points, 32 ballots)

The case for Sam Hilliard is one built on potential. The 24-year old lefty outfielder is a true tool shed prospect, boasting a 6’5”, 225 pound frame with plus athleticism across the board. That includes plus speed, a plus arm (he was a two-way player in college), and average defense to go with average power (plus raw power) and a passable hit tool — not bad for a 15th round pick! Put it together and that’s a profile that suggests a major league regular outfielder. The Rockies think the potential is there, as they protected Hilliard from the Rule 5 draft this off-season by awarding Hilliard a 40 man roster spot.

That’s not to say there aren’t concerns about the profile. Foremost among these concerns is strikeouts, as Hilliard has has consistently had a strikeout rate above 20%. In addition, Hilliard had only faced competition that was younger than him and was the beneficiary of some great hitter’s parks. Still, entering 2018 Hilliard had produced wRC+ lines at increasing levels of 126, 1288, and 134, to go with decent slugging and strong stolen base numbers.

Assigned to Double-A for 2018, Hilliard was finally (slightly) younger than league average in a more neutral hitting environment. In 484 plate appearances with Hartford, the lefty hit .262/.327/.389 with 34 extra base hits (9 HR) and 23 steals out of 37 attempts, good for a near-league average 99 wRC+. Though the overall production was okay, Hilliard’s K% rose again, with 31.2% of his PAs ending in a strikeout vs. 8.5% of PAs being walks. Hilliard struggled mightily against lefties, posting an anemic .577 OPS against them (.761 against righties) and struggled comparatively on the road (.669 OPS) vs. home (.762 OPS). The underlying current was that Hilliard’s production at Double-A wasn’t quite in line with the potential implied by his tools, muddying his outlook moving forward as a prospect.

Encouragingly, Hilliard did receive an Arizona Fall League berth, where he showed better with a .328/.389/.516 line over 72 PAs.

Here’s some video of Hilliard in the AFL, courtesy of 2080 Baseball:

In their recent system overview, Hilliard was listed as a prospect of interest by Baseball Prospectus:

He’s sneaky athletic, an average runner who’s a good glove/plus arm in right and could probably even stand in center for you once a week. It is still a corner outfield profile though, and the bat may not carry it.

The power is on point. It’s plus raw and Hilliard will absolutely punish mistakes, but the stiffness in his swing and pitch recognition issues limited how much of that raw got into games against Double-A arms. Hilliard also has platoon issues, and it’s fair to mention that he benefited from Hartford’s short porch in right. He will be 25 before Opening Day. He straddles the bench outfielder/org guy line for now, but I always liked Jordan Patterson more than most too.

Wilson Karaman of BP provided more specifics in his June 2017 report on Hilliard:

Hilliard boasts a solid collection of baseball skills, offering workable corner outfield defense, some pop, and some speed. The swing is a bit unorthodox, and he tries to make up for mediocre bat speed with timing and adjustability. He’ll take pitches and work walks to prop up his on-base profile, but he’s not going to win any batting titles. He often struggles to stride online against same-handed pitching, bailing out and exposing wide swaths of real estate around the zone. The lack of a carrying defensive tool, couple with platoon issues, tickets him on a strong-side corner platoon track. There’s enough talent here that he’s a decent bet to pull it off.

FanGraphs ranked Hilliard 16th in the system in their May 2018 update:

Hilliard has a pretty standard right-field profile grounded in big raw power and surprising straight-line speed for his size. He also has swing-and-miss issues, and concern regarding them is compounded by his age considering he has been old for every level at which he’s had success. There are several ways for Hilliard to move up this list even if the strikeouts continue, and one of them is getting to more of his power, which, given that his ground-ball rate is way down early this year, might be happening.

Hilliard is currently ranked highest by MLB.com, who slots him 9th in the system:

He’s a tooled-up, left-handed-hitting right fielder, prompting one club official to compare him to Larry Walker, though Hilliard isn’t nearly as polished at the plate as the greatest hitter in franchise history. His extra-large frame gives him an extra-long swing that resulted in 359 strikeouts in his first 320 pro games. He has 20-20 potential, with plus raw power that he began to tap into more last year when he began hitting more fly balls and the speed to match.

Though he runs well enough to at least fill in as a center fielder, Hilliard fits better in right. His arm delivered 88-92 mph fastballs in college and gives him a third plus tool.

No doubt there are warts in Hilliard’s profile. Still, Hilliard’s athleticism and skill represents a potential big league regular if it comes together, and that’s something to be celebrated from a mid-round draft pick. I ranked him 12th in the system with a 40+ Future Value grade as a reserve outfielder with significant upside (and significant risk). I do think it’s an indictment of the system’s relative lack of impact prospects that a player with Hilliard’s flaws ranks so highly, but he does represent the top of a deep tier of similar prospects that has been explored already in the PuRPs process.

Hilliard may be assigned to Triple-A to start 2019, where he again will be in a friendly offensive environment. If he can display the ability to adjust his approach against more advanced pitching, he could muscle his way into the big league roster picture as soon as late 2019, though a 2020 debut might make more sense.