5. Sam Hilliard (552 points, 22 ballots)
The last time we did these rankings, last July, Sam Hilliard was nine spots lower on this list. What changed between now and then? Only one of the more impressive first 34 days a Rockies prospect has had in the big leagues in a while. The case with the 6’5”, 225 pound lefty outfielder had always been built on the crazy high potential his collection of tools represent, but before this past September it was hard to believe they would translate to Major League pitching. Well, seeing is believing, and Hilliard enters the top five of the system with a chance at a regular role for the Rockies in 2020.
Backing up a bit, who is Hilliard exactly? Quite simply, he’s a late bloomer (turning 26 later this month) with the aforementioned size, plus speed, plus arm (he was a two-way player in college), and above average power (plus raw). That’s not bad for a 15th round pick, in fact those are the ingredients for a starting Major League outfielder. It’s why the Rockies added Hilliard to the 40 man roster before the 2019 season despite less than elite results and plenty of holes in his offensive approach.
In his climb to AAA, Hilliard had consistently been old for his level and had racked up 20+% strikeout numbers at each rung of the organizational ladder. With Albuquerque, Hilliard still struck out a lot (29.3% of the time) and he was in the crazy offensive environment that was the Pacific Coast League using the rabbit ball in 2019. Still though, hitting 35 homers among 71 extra base hits with 22 steals in 559 plate appearances as Hilliard did is an impressive display of offensive prowess. Defensively, Hilliard spent time at all three positions in the outfield, but was mostly placed in right field in deference to defensive whiz and fellow PuRP Yonathan Daza.
Sure, the aforementioned contact issues and offensive context knock down Hilliard’s .262/.335/.558 line into just a 107 wRC+, but the power surge was just what Hilliard observers had been waiting for from a guy who just looks like he should be clubbing dingers left and right. Hilliard was naturally better at home (.952 OPS) than on the road (.834), but he produced similarly well against lefties (.877 OPS) than righties (.899). He finished the year strong too, posting a 1.079 OPS with 7 homers in August en route to his big league debut.
About that debut: Hilliard homered in his first game in MLB, then did it again in his third appearance, giving birth to the legend of Slam Hill-yard. In all, Hilliard homered seven times in 87 plate appearances (including a game-tying 9th inning homer off Josh Hader in the season’s penultimate game) with the Rockies. In all, he posted a .273/.356/.649 line that also included four doubles, two triples, and two stolen bases (138 wRC+). That was worth 0.6 rWAR to the Rockies, which ranked 6th among position players for 2019. Hilliard started 11 games in center field too with time in the corner slots as well, showing off his defensive versatility even in the most challenging outfield in the game.
Yes, it’s a small sample, and yes, the contact issues were still present (26.4% Ks). Nonetheless, in the bleak year that was 2019, Rockies fans needed the hope provided by Slam Hill-Yard in September.
Here’s some video of Hilliard in the 2018 AFL, courtesy of 2080 Baseball:
Or you could watch him hit that MLB debut homer.
FanGraphs not only ranked Hilliard 5th in the system with a 45 Future Value tag, they listed him as a center fielder:
Hilliard is a big, athletic thumper with a rare power/speed combination. He’s flourished in his four years as a full-time hitter, slashing .277/.350/.480 in the minors before reaching the big leagues late last summer. As one might expect for such an under-baked athlete who a) barely played as a junior college freshman and b) also pitched the next two years, Hilliard lacks defensive instincts and feel to hit. His ability to identify pitches he can drive is impressive in context, but well-executed pitches can get him out. Hilliard’s big, gallivanting strides make him a plus runner underway, but his mediocre reads on balls in center detract from his range. It’s still above-average in a corner, closer to fringe in center field. It’s kind of a tweener defensive profile except with way more raw power than is usual for that sort, so Hilliard projects to be a strong big league role player, likely the larger half of a platoon in any of the three outfield positions.
The FanGraphs evaluation includes 50 or better grades on everything but his 40 hit tool (including 60 throw and 60 raw power), which is high praise for those notoriously stingy evaluators.
Likewise, Hilliard ranks 5th in the org according to Baseball Prospectus, with a 50 OFP designation. Here’s Jeffrey Paternostro on Hilliard:
Hilliard has always looked like a player who should hit for more power than he has as a pro. When you consider that he’s built like a football player and has played his home games in Asheville, Lancaster, and Hartford, you’d have expected a season like his 2019 before now. Yes, it’s Albuquerque and Coors, but 40 bombs is 40 bombs. Hilliard has some fairly obvious warts to the profile. The swing has some length and stiffness to it, and he’s struggled left-on-left. He looked a bit shorter to the ball in the majors, but there’s still some swing-and-miss in the zone, especially if you can elevate above his hands, due to a steep swing path.
There’s some good stuff here that might be less obvious too. Despite his size, he’s a sneaky athlete, an average runner with a big arm who can hack it in center a couple days a week. HIlliard is also a smart baserunner, and he has an idea of what to take his huge hacks at. This feels like the kind of profile the Rockies give too many at-bats to, as he’s more of a long-side platoon outfielder, but Hilliard is major-league-ready and no mere lumbering corner slugger. He will hit some majestic bombs playing in Coors too, and that’s always fun.
Finally, MLB Pipeline’s (older) evaluation has Hilliard 14th in the system:
On any given day, Hilliard will show all five tools. Given that he didn’t really start focusing on his offensive game until college, he’s still learning to hit. He made some adjustments to his swing at the end of his 2018 season, adding a small leg kick to replace a toe tap with strong results, especially in the AFL. It allowed him to keep his weight back, wait on breaking balls more and lay off of ones out of the strike zone, something that has previously plagued him. It should help him tap into his easily plus raw power more consistently. He runs very well for his size and while he has seen time in all three outfield spots, he fits the profile of an athletic power-hitting right fielder with a plus arm.
Because of his size, athleticism and tools, Hilliard sometimes gets Larry Walker comps, minus the plus hit tool. That’s an unfair standard obviously, but there is ceiling for Hilliard to still grow into.
It’s been no secret that the electorate, myself included, has long been intrigued by Hilliard’s potential but turned off by the warts in his offensive profile. This past September, we saw the upside we’d been looking for, and at the Major League level. If that can translate to a full season after opponents get more of a book on Hilliard, the Rockies have a badly needed regular outfielder to plug into the middle of the line-up. Even if Hilliard is just the strong side of a platoon, as is suggested by the scouts in their above evaluations, the Rockies will be thrilled with a player with that kind of upside in center-field. I ranked Hilliard 5th in the system with a FV 45+ grade as a potential regular outfielder with significant upside (and significant risk).
Hilliard enters 2020 firmly in the roster picture, but the chance exists that he gets forced into a reserve role or even a ticket back to AAA with a poor spring. That’s because there are three veterans above him in the hierarchy, plus the out of options Raimel Tapia. The optimist in me hopes that the Rockies see the light and use Ian Desmond as the weak side of the platoon and give Hilliard more run, but this is the Rockies we’re talking about.