The narrative will tell you that the Detroit Tigers started rebuilding in 2017. The truth is less cut and dried. There are still several talented players who were never dealt away for the need of the moment back in 2014-2015, and the possibility remains that some of those players still have a role to play in the Tigers future. Of that group, center fielder Derek Hill stands out above the pack.
The Tigers first round selection in the 2014 draft, it’s been a long, hard road for Hill thus far in his pro career. A litany of injuries culminating in 2016’s UCL surgery have stifled Hill’s development and made it difficult to value him properly. Yet Hill remains a tantalizing prospect who retains the potential to be a future All-Star, and the Tigers’ system doesn’t have too many position players you can say that about.
Hill is the son of Orsino Hill, a notable pro scout who still work for the Los Angeles Dodgers. He was the rare prep position player taken by the Tigers in the first round of the draft. Hill had the baseball pedigree, and the wheels, to star in high school, and the Tigers snapped him up with the 23rd overall pick.
The 22-year-old Hill has always had high end defensive ability as his calling card. The question has always been whether his bat would play up enough to ride his speed and defense to the major leagues. Thus far, Hill hasn’t been able to stay on the field enough to make predicting his potential much easier.
A quad injury in 2015 hampered his first full season of pro ball. The next year he blew out his elbow just as he was starting to look more comfortable at the plate again. Hill spent a year in rehab, and as often happens with a young player, seemed to benefit overall from the rehabilitation process. He was noticeably stronger when he finally returned in 2017, and had clearly put a little muscle on his 6’2” frame.
Hill proceeded to post a .812 OPS with West Michigan over 35 games, showing more gap power and posting a walk rate of 11 percent. The high strikeout rate was still present, but overall it was encouraging to see Hill finally healthy and swinging the bat with better patience and authority. By season’s end, Hill had graduated to the Florida State League.
Now, some optimism about Hill’s future is finally creeping back into his evaluations. ESPN’s Keith Law surprised a lot of people last month when he named Hill the Tigers’ third best prospect. Hill has also an been honorable mention on several prospect sites’ top 100 lists this winter. There is a pretty good argument that Hill’s injuries have left him rather under-rated considering his abilities and youth.
Derek Hill has the ability to become an elite defensive center fielder. He could take the field in the majors and play plus defense as he is right now. The ceiling is probably a notch shy of Byron Buxton or Kevin Kiermaier territory, but those are the type of center fielders Hill will be compared to when and if he arrives in Detroit.
The tool that makes the rest of it work is Hill’s speed. MLB Pipeline grades it double-plus, and that is generally the consensus. He snagged 29 bags in 58 games in 2017, and while it gets tougher to steal bases in the upper levels and the major leagues, Hill has the speed and acumen to take 30+ bases at those levels too. He’s 100 for 120 attempts thus far in his pro career. The speed also argues for a reasonably high BABIP projection on Hill, even if he never makes the consistent hard contact one would hope.
At the plate, Hill has a quiet, efficient stroke, showing good balance and solid bat to ball skills. He drove pitches with improved authority upon his return to the batter’s box in 2017, and showed better ability to stay back and barrel up offspeed. On the other hand, he’ll still struggle with both velocity and spin at times, and can be exploited for his overly aggressive approach.
Hill is a fairly big guy for a player with his speed, and it’s reasonable to expect more power as he continues to gets reps and build strength. 15-20 home run power isn’t yet out of the question, depending on how his contact ability develops. The bat is still clearly the weak point, and the Tigers have nudged him to work on bunting to add another weapon to his toolkit, but Hill is still technically inexperienced enough to where dismissing his hit tool is still a premature decision.
Like any position player, Hill’s future is going to be dictated almost entirely by his bat. But unlike most prospects, there is less pressure on Hill’s bat because his speed and defense are so valuable. One way or the other, Hill likely has a major league role in his future. His baserunning and defense will probably get him there whether the bat plays or not. The question is whether that role is as a star center fielder, a Billy Hamilton-type defensive specialist, or as a bench player. And at this point, the jury is still far from a decision.
Hill needs work on his pitch recognition, and will chase and whiff at too many pitches. In 2017, he struck out roughly a quarter of the time despite it being his second partial season in A-ball. While he doesn’t need to eventually hit any more than Jose Iglesias to be a major league starter, the fact that he’s still striking out to that degree has to put a check on Hill’s floor. Even the improvement in discipline, as evidenced in his better walk rate this season occurred in too small a sample to really be confident in it yet. The injuries and resulting lack of data continues to inject caution into Hill’s more optimistic projections.
The Tigers don’t need Hill to become even a league average hitter to make him their starting center fielder. He probably doesn’t have the hands to avoid striking out a substantial amount. However it’s also possible that Hill will eventually have roughly 15-20 home run power. And Hill’s speed will help him get on base. He has to continue to develop his approach and recognize spin more effectively than he does now. If Hill can simply make more contact, his other tools will help the bat play up. Hopefully, we’ll see if a full season of health does the trick and improves his pitch recognition in 2018.
Projected 2018 team: Advanced-A Lakeland Flying Tigers
The Tigers will no doubt be ready to move Hill to Double-A Erie should he get out to a good start in 2018. But it was a little surprising that the Tigers didn’t give him a stint in the Arizona Fall League to help him catch up a bit after only appearing in 58 games last year. As a result, it seems certain that Hill will start the season in Lakeland. Doing so will allow him to more easily build on last season’s progress and prepare to take the big jump to Double-A later on this year if all goes well.