Prospect rankings can be awfully fickle. Last year, outfielder Derek Hill was the crown jewel of the Detroit Tigers' farm system, ranking atop nearly every prospect list in the business as they trickled out before the season. Baseball Prospectus even squeezed him into their top 101 prospects across baseball, at No. 98 overall. The hype wasn't overwhelming, but it was there.
Hill didn't deliver. Some early season struggles at the plate coupled with a nagging injury or two limited Hill to 53 games played with the Single-A West Michigan Whitecaps, where he hit .238/.305/.314 with 11 extra base hits and zero home runs. There was progress -- Hill's numbers perked up a bit after mid-May -- but the season was still a disappointing one for the young outfielder.
Hill has dropped off the radar in recent months, with many sites moving him down the Tigers prospect leaderboards. This is partially due to an improved farm system, but we should not sleep on Hill. A plus defender who still needs to improve his offensive game, Hill is one Tigers prospect to keep a close eye on in 2016.
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From day one, Hill's best asset has been his superb defense. Most scouts have given Hill's speed an easy plus-plus (70) grade, which helps him track down fly balls to the deepest regions of any ballpark. Hill's glove has drawn similar 70-grade praise, while his arm checks in around major league average -- which can be considered a positive in itself for a center fielder. He may already be a major league capable defender, and many evaluators peg him as a potential Gold Glove caliber center fielder at his peak.
Hill's speed should also help him on the basepaths, where he made an impact in limited action last season. Hill swiped 25 bases in 32 chances in Single-A ball last year, and tallied five triples in 235 plate appearances. While minor league stolen base totals can be inflated -- speed doesn't evolve as guys are promoted, but the pitcher-catcher exchange does -- Hill's speed is legitimate.
Hill's biggest issue so far has been reaching base, but scouts think he has potential to be a major league average hitter. FanGraphs' Zeke Fine pointed out reasons for optimism in late 2014.
Consistently makes hard contact, barreling up pitches, above average bat speed, advanced approach for someone at his age, demonstrates good patience early in the count, good pitch recognition ability, effective at making adjustments for off-speed stuff. Approach towards Center/Right-Center. No glaring holes in his swing path.
While he tagged Hill with a 20-grade hit tool at the time, he cited a future value of 55, or just above major league average.
The glowing scouting reports on Hill's offensive potential are encouraging, but he is still a defense-first player that has a long way to go before being considered for a starting spot in the major leagues. Hill hit just .238/.305/.314 last season, and is batting just .225/.301/.305 through his first 100 minor league games. His solid walk rate is encouraging, but he isn't making a lot of hard contact at present, and a 20.6 percent strikeout rate in the minor leagues is higher than many would like to see at this point.
Like his hit tool, Hill's power is also a work in progress. Many believe that it could eventually reach a major league average level, but it may take several years before someone with Hill's profile begins to do some real damage. Hill has the frame to add some bulk, but projects as more of a leadoff hitter with gap power. He will never be a 20 home run player, and seems a ways away from 10 homer power at this point.
(h/t James Chipman)
Evaluation: Chris Crawford, Baseball Prospectus
Where Hill excels is on the bases and with the glove. He’s a plus-plus runner who reads pitchers well, and he excels at getting good jumps in the outfield. His throwing arm is only average, but it’s accurate and certainly good enough to handle center field. One scout compared him defensively to Lorenzo Cain, so he’s got that going for him, which is nice. Hill’s ceiling is a leadoff hitter who wins Gold Gloves in center, with fourth outfielder who can steal bases and win games with the glove a solid floor.
Projected team: Single-A West Michigan
As a player who drew draft day comparisons to Torii Hunter, Hill is still young and talented enough to take a major leap forward at any time. He will likely begin the season back at Single-A West Michigan, but could easily make the jump to High-A Lakeland if his offensive numbers improve. However, at 20, he will still be one of the youngest players in the Midwest League, so don't panic if he spends the entire year at West Michigan. Staying healthy for a full season is his biggest hurdle at this point.
Note: We're changing up our prospect coverage a bit this year. Instead of an "official" ranking of the best prospects in the system, we're going to profile those that are most interesting to us (and you too, hopefully). Don't worry, no one has been fired, and daily recaps will still happen during the season. We appreciate any constructive feedback you offer, and we'll take your prospect suggestions into account as well.