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SCOTTSDALE – As a 6’5” outfielder with an impressive combination of speed and power, it seems hard to believe that some scouts didn’t believe Sam Hilliard could make it as a hitter.
After four progressive seasons in the Rockies organization, featuring All-Star selections each of the past three years, including this season where he was the runner-up in the Double-A Home Run Derby, Sam Hilliard will now be representing the Colorado Rockies in the 2018 Arizona Fall League.
Joined by pitchers Ryan Castellani, Jesus Tinoco, Justin Lawrence and Mitch Horacek, as well as infielders Tyler Nevin and Josh Fuentes as Rockies representatives on the Salt River Rafters, Hilliard will look to continue changing minds of those doubting his ability to be an offensive force.
He made it look easy batting third for the Rafters on Tuesday with singles in his first two at-bats and a triple in his final plate appearance for 3-for-5 game one of the fall season.
Back in 2014, he was drafted by the Minnesota Twins out of Crowder College (MO) in the 31st round, Hilliard decided to bet on himself and play another year of college baseball.
“Playing Division I baseball was always my dream and I didn’t want to stop hitting,” he told BSN Denver. “Hitting is a lot more fun. It’s what I love to do. I wanted to go see if I could prove myself as a hitter for another year and playing Division I baseball (at Wichita State University) was that main reason.
His lone season with the Shockers of the Missouri Valley Conference as a pitcher and outfielder earned him a spot on the All-Conference Team and was enough to impress the Rockies, who selected Hilliard as an outfielder in the 15th round in 2015.
However, the Mansfield, TX native was emphatic in his response about having interest in playing both ways as both a pitcher and hitter.
“No. Not at all. I did that in college. It really took a toll on my body. My arm was hurting all the time because I’d be throwing from the outfield, max effort, then have to go pitch the next day, then have to go back in the outfield. So, I didn’t really enjoy it.”
As is typical with many newly drafted players for the past seven seasons, Colorado sent Hilliard to play with the Grand Junction Rockies of the Pioneer League for his first taste of professional baseball.
His objective was a simple one.
“I just wanted to enjoy every moment because I was playing professional baseball and a lot of people don’t get to do that. That was my focus.”
Hilliard was immediately impressive in Short-Season ball, putting up a .929 OPS in 222 at-bats while hitting seven home runs and stealing 12 bases on the Western Slope.
In 2016, Hilliard took the next step to play at Low-A Asheville, earning a Player of the Week honors and starting in the South Atlantic League All-Star Game en route to slugging seventeen homers and swiping thirty bases.
The son of a Texas Longhorn football player and Miss Texas 1984 followed up those intriguing power and speed numbers with another solid season in 2017 at Advanced-A Lancaster, improving to 21 homers and 37 stolen bases.
Like all prospects in the Rockies organization, the hitter-friendly environments of Asheville’s McCormick Field and Lancaster’s The Hangar have been great breeding grounds for young batters in need of lessons for how to temper one’s approach in a hitter’s haven like Coors Field.
“If you’re not disciplined, you can definitely fall into a bad habit. I remember the first day I got to Asheville I saw that field and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh. If I don’t hit 50 home runs, I suck.’ Sometimes I fall into that trap, but it’s just about being a professional and being disciplined and telling yourself you never hit a home run when you’re trying to hit a home run. Don’t let the dimensions of the field get in your head.”
The Mansfield High School graduate grew up not too far from Globe Life Park in Arlington, home of certain Texas Rangers and an MVP with a similar set of tools in his arsenal.
“I really liked Josh Hamilton. He’s a five-tool guy. Other than that, I just try to play my own game.”
His combination of speed and power is also matched by a strong arm that has helped him reach the top of the outfield assist standings in each of the past two years with 13 and 12 assists, respectively, in Low- and High-A.
This year, his number of outfield assists dipped, but as Hilliard climbs the rungs of the minor leagues, the talents of those opposing him have greatly improved, too.
“It’s all about how many opportunities that you get. I feel maybe last year I got more opportunities and some things bounced my way a little more. I’m working on this wall out here in right field. It’s a little tricky. It’s a big tall wall and I’ve got a few under my belt this year, but it’s a little tough.”
Slightly less tough is the decision for the Rockies on whether or not to protect Hilliard on the 40-man roster this offseason.
Though not a make-or-break six weeks in the Arizona Fall League, Hilliard will look to rebound after a season in which he suffered career lows across several categories.
Should the 24-year-old to be left exposed to December’s Rule 5 Draft, it could mean the departure of this talented five-tool athlete from Colorado’s organization and proof for Hilliard that his potential cannot be understated.
But the Rockies have shown a propensity to stockpile exceptional, versatile athletes and continuing to invest in Hilliard could eventually find him adding his name to the list that includes Trevor Story, Garrett Hampson, and Ryan McMahon.