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Brian Walton's news and commentary on the St. Louis Cardinals (TM) and their minor league system

Hamilton: Fit and trim but is he a fit?

St. Louis Cardinals prospect Mark Hamilton may be just as blocked in the outfield as he is at his natural position, first base.

    With no actual games yet to report, this is the time of year the early media arrivals at spring training all over Florida and Arizona wear out the already-tired phrase, “Shlabotnik arrived in camp in the best shape of his career.”

    So it was on Friday, albeit pre-Felipe Lopez by several hours, when generally-pessimistic Joe Strauss of the Post-Dispatch tweeted this:

    “Cards impressed that 1B prospect Mark Hamilton has shed 20 lbs. Projects at AAA Memphis but he does hit LH. Never know…”

    Mark Hamilton (Brian Walton photo)The 25-year-old is attending his first big-league camp after having been added to the 40-man roster in November to protect him from the Rule 5 draft. As Strauss notes, the Cards’ supplemental second round pick in 2006 is likely slated to return to Triple-A Memphis. I am not going to spend any time analyzing Hamilton’s chances to come north with the Cardinals as I just don’t see it happening.

    My concern is more basic – whether or not there will be room for Hamilton to work more on his outfield play, even in Triple-A. After all, a reserve first baseman in St. Louis is baseball’s version of the Maytag repairman. As a professional, the big man, 6-foot-4, 220 pounds, has a grand total of one game of regular season outfield experience to date.

    Though the left-handed hitter played some outfield in college at Tulane, Hamilton will find a very crowded competition in Memphis. Depending on who makes the major league club, the Redbirds may have as many as seven other outfielders on their 2010 roster, all with previous Triple-A experience: Nick Stavinoha, Mark Shorey, Shane Robinson, Jon Jay, Amaury Cazana, Allen Craig and Joe Mather. Add to that top prospects Daryl Jones and Tyler Henley in Springfield who should be ready for Triple-A before very long and something major has to give.

    The Cardinals have been trumpeting Hamilton’s winter ball stint in the Dominican Republic as having been valuable for him to become familiar with playing left field. Though he made only one error for the Gigantes del Cibao, he lasted barely two weeks with the club before being released.

    Hamilton didn’t get much time to work on his glove as he must have left his bat behind in the States. He played in 15 games going 9-for-47 with one double, two home runs, nine RBIs and 15 strikeouts. His slash line was .191/.298/.340.

    Strauss’ kind remark regarding Hamilton’s ability to hit lefties stuck in my head as I recalled this stat from Mark’s aborted winter assignment. Against left-handed pitching, he went 0-for-13 with seven strikeouts. Granted, it was a small number of at-bats, but hardly a momentum-builder.

    Looking at Hamilton’s career splits, his OPS as a professional versus left-handers is just .699. It might be tempting to stop right there. In all fairness, let’s look at his yearly numbers for signs of progress.

    vs LHP Level BA OBP SLG OPS
    2006 SS-A, A 0.154 0.214 0.250 0.464
    2007 A+, AA 0.241 0.306 0.406 0.712
    2008 AA 0.304 0.391 0.339 0.730
    2009 AA, AAA 0.289 0.386 0.421 0.807
    Career 0.249 0.327 0.372 0.699
    vs RHP Level BA OBP SLG OPS
    2006 SS-A, A 0.289 0.356 0.500 0.856
    2007 A+, AA 0.279 0.341 0.485 0.826
    2008 AA 0.222 0.323 0.397 0.720
    2009 AA, AAA 0.322 0.417 0.571 0.988
    Career 0.280 0.359 0.491 0.850

    Coming off a string 2007 in which his 90 RBI led the system and he secured a berth in the Arizona Fall League, Hamilton’s career momentum stalled. His 2008 was injury-shortened and rough. From the left side, he did get on base, but showed no power. It was followed by his best season with the bat in 2009.

    Any optimism or pessimism over Hamilton’s chances to hit in the majors would have to be predicated on his most recent season, only part of which was against Triple-A competition. In his third partial season in Double-A in 2009, Hamilton began on fire. He didn’t do poorly in Memphis, either, though his Triple-A at-bats versus lefties were limited, just 34.

    How Hamilton will get the chance to demonstrate any ability in the outfield in the near term remains an even bigger question.

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    Brian Walton

    Brian Walton runs The Cardinal Nation and The Cardinal Nation Blog, covering the St. Louis Cardinals and minor league system.
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