Since he was selected in the 2014 MLB draft, and through a rash of injuries that derailed his progress early on, hope never faded out that Derek Hill could still bloom into the player the Detroit Tigers thought he could become. Each year, that hope seemed to fall short, with incremental improvements taking the place of leaps still required. Hill was finally near the end of his rope in the eyes of many in the prospect world. Then 2019 happened.
While it wasn’t a massive breakout, a lot of things seemingly came together during Hill’s first try at the Double-A level. He had never hit more than two homers in season, yet he hit 14 with Erie along with 21 steals. He showed enough for the Tigers to protect him from the Rule 5 draft this winter by adding him to the 40-man roster.
Just over a year ago the BYB staff wasn’t optimistic about Hill’s status as a prospect in an increasingly talented Tigers farm. He played well enough in 2019 to not only stay on the list, but also moved up four spots, to number 20.
Hill is a former first round pick out of Elk Grove High School in California who was given a $2 million signing bonus to sway him away from his commitment to the University of Oregon. He had bloodlines too, as the cousin of former All-Star Darryl Strawberry, but there was more to it than that. Hill had a projectable offensive skill set to go along with phenomenal speed and defense, which were his carrying tools.
It has taken awhile for that potential to manifest itself. Thanks to injuries and subpar performance, Hill spent the entire 2015 and 2016 seasons, along with most of his 2017 campaign in the Midwest League. He finally got a foothold at Advanced-A Lakeland in 2018, and eventually up to Erie last year.
It has been a very long road for Hill, mostly due to an inability to stay on the field. Across the three seasons he was in West Michigan, he compiled only 181 games played. A healthy 2019 in Erie saw him log 120 games of the best baseball he has played since being drafted.
Hill’s key tools when he was drafted haven’t changed; he’s fast. His elite speed is very apparent and helps when he gets on base, which he has done at a .313 clip over the course of his career. He had 21 steals this past year, which is his lowest total since his shortened draft year in 2014. Even when he played only 58 games in 2017, he swiped 29 bases.
Hill’s speed also helps him on defense, and has helped him to fill out a superb highlight reel over the course of his minor league career. He is consistently rated one of the best defensive center fielders in the minor leagues.
Here are just a couple of examples of what he can do, from 2019 action:
Always need some help from your defense in a no-no. Great play from Derek Hill here...even if he was playing deep second base. pic.twitter.com/LwvMMYYCSR— Locked On Tigers (@LockedOnTigers) April 30, 2019
#MotorOn Oh my good god, Derek Hill ... this just happened. This Erie outfield is ridiculous. pic.twitter.com/2kkq4TNLeJ— HookSlide (@HookSlide23) August 17, 2019
A key question all along with Hill has been whether enough bat speed and power would eventually show up to make him a viable future major league hitter. It took a long time, but we finally saw that jump in 2019. He still has too much swing and miss in his game, but the gains in muscle added to his 6’2 frame, and a move to launching more fly balls, produced a major jump in home runs with the Double-A SeaWolves. The Triple-A levels saw a major jump in home run power with the introduction of the major league ball in 2019, and it should be interesting to see whether Hill can take advantage as he moves up to Toledo this year.
Durability has been a key question for Hill, but he seems to have finally put some of those issues behind him. One of the reasons we’ve been patient with him is that not only was he drafted out of high school, but his first three seasons were ravaged by injuries, including a UCL reconstruction that short-circuited his development. Hill came back from all that having built up his strength and overall conditioning without losing his trademark speed. In terms of experience and development time, Hill has the experience of a player several years younger than his actual age of 24. Now, with two basically complete seasons of good health under his belt, Hill has finally made substantial progress, but is running out of time to make a major leap into true prospect status.
Beyond health, it is Hill’s hit tool that holds him back. He did finally flash power in Erie with 14 homers, which is a substantial breakout in that department. Still, he hit just .243/.311/.394 in 2019 while striking out 27.9 percent of the time. Hill has an aggressive approach at the plate and that tends to lead to him swinging out of the zone, despite ability to read spin. He will need to put that discipline to work more effectively this season and trim the strikeouts. However, his numbers are acceptable for his introduction to a much better class of pitching staff at the Double-A level, and the power gains make a future major league career as a fourth outfielder and defensive specialist a more likely proposition than they appeared this time last year.
With his speed, Hill may yet be better served putting the ball on the ground more, but he has a pretty balanced profile in terms of batted ball types. As long as the home run power continues to show up without producing a major uptick in pop-ups, there isn’t much to worry about. The real issue is selecting better pitches to offer at and cutting down on the strikeouts a little more. It does seem that Hill has made some adjustments to quiet his swing. Those changes, combined with more muscle, started to unlock the power from his natural bat speed and compact swing. However, the bat control and overall contact ability continue to lag too far behind to hold out much hope of a substantial late breakout.
At this point, hopes that Hill eventually blossom into the star center fielder of our dreams have been consigned to the scrap heap. However, the growth in his power and overall athleticism over the past two seasons have seen his speed and defensive ability come through intact. It’s still reasonable to hope that Hill can hit enough to put that defensive ability to work in the Tigers outfield in the not too distant future. The ceiling now is just more in the JaCoby Jones range of outcomes than was originally hoped.
Projected 2020 Team: Triple-A Toledo Mud Hens
It seems Hill is destined to join the likes of Daz Cameron and Jacob Robson in Toledo in 2020 after being added to the 40-man roster. Frankly, it will be well earned after a solid showing at Erie last year. However, at least early in the season, nothing is a given in that Toledo outfield because Troy Stokes Jr., Jorge Bonifacio, and several other hopefuls will also be vying for a spot in that outfield if they don’t show enough to make the Detroit roster out of spring training.
The Tigers will have to get Hill and Cameron reps in center field, so they will each have to get accustomed to playing some right field. The situation might be rather murky early in the season as the team faces a deep pool of older, mediocre outfield candidates. Still, Cameron and Hill continue to have the highest upside of the group, and their playing time should take priority at the Triple-A level.