- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- The Cincinnati Reds have challenged rookie outfielder Billy Hamilton to embrace a role at the top of the batting order and help lead the team to its fourth postseason appearance in five years. But this much is certain: No one in camp is going to challenge him to a foot race.
"I would need a motorcycle," said right fielder Jay Bruce, "and I would still need a head start."
It's yet to be determined if Hamilton will hit with enough authority to take advantage of his blazing speed and captivate the baseball world the way he did in 2012, when he blew past Donell Nixon and Vince Coleman and set a minor-league record with 155 stolen bases. In his quest to build off that achievement and become more than a one-trick (albeit very fast) pony, Hamilton doesn't lack for mentors.
On his way through the Reds' farm system, Hamilton worked extensively with Delino DeShields and Ken Griffey Sr., who passed along the collected wisdom of 32 combined seasons in the majors. This spring in Arizona, he's spending a lot of time with Reds special assistant Eric Davis -- another guy who knows a lot about the burdens of excessive hype.
All Hamilton has to do is play a solid defensive center field and bring a dose of fuel-injection to the batting order while replacing Shin-Soo Choo, who parlayed a .389 career on-base percentage into a $130 million contract with the Texas Rangers in December. When Davis joined the Reds in the spring of 1984, he was labeled the second coming of Willie Mays.
"I try not to put labels on people," Davis said. "When I came to the big leagues, I weighed 165 pounds. I was lucky that I had people in my corner who wouldn't let other people do certain things to my game. When you try to turn somebody into what you want them to be, it's very difficult.
"The most important thing for Billy right now is to just let him play, and not put emphasis on him seeing 13 pitches per at-bat, or whatever. The whole league knows he can run. When you steal 155 bases, you can't sneak up on nobody."
Hamilton has the athletic gifts to learn on the fly. As a high schooler in tiny Taylorsville, Miss., he threw 92 mph off the pitcher's mound and clocked a sub-3.8-second time down the first-base line. He also showed enough skill as a wide receiver and punt returner to receive a football scholarship from Mississippi State, but turned it down to sign with the Reds for a $623,000 bonus as a second-round pick in the 2009 draft.
At 23, Hamilton possesses the type of work ethic and coachable demeanor that scouts and personnel people love to see. He's a sincere, energetic kid who soaks in instruction and quickly files it away for future reference.
"He's one of the few guys we have that we don't have to tell something three, four or five times," Davis said. "He just gets it."
After spending four years in the minors at shortstop, Hamilton shifted to center field last season with Triple-A Louisville. Davis, who also made the shortstop-to-center-field transition, is drilling him on the importance of studying hitters and polishing his reads and routes in the outfield rather than simply relying on his speed as a crutch. Like most new center fielders, Hamilton is more comfortable coming in on the ball than going back on it.
His bat is the big question, and doubts will persist until (or if) Hamilton gets over the hump.
Hamilton, a switch-hitter, was a mixed bag offensively in the minors. He logged an .852 OPS with Class A Bakerfield, but it dipped to .789 with Double-A Pensacola and .651 with Triple-A Louisville before he arrived in Cincinnati and stole 13 bases in a 13-game September audition.
Then Hamilton posted a .284 OBP in the Puerto Rican winter league, and Peter Gammons quoted a scout who said he looked "a little overmatched." That substantiated the notion among some scouts and front office people that the Reds are heaping too much on his plate.
As one big-league executive points out, the Reds fired manager Dusty Baker last winter after he led the team to the playoffs three times in four years. It's not as if Hamilton is playing for the Houston Astros and can take his lumps from 30 games out of first place.
"I think he's a lot closer to Dee Gordon than he is Kenny Lofton or any other type of catalyst leadoff type," the executive said. "In fact, I think they are really doing him a disservice trying to hit him leadoff. It's hard enough for rookies to adjust to life at the major-league level, but this is a guy who just recently changed positions, and now he is on a team expected to be in playoff contention and hit leadoff? I think he has a better chance of being in Louisville by June than he does of posting an OBP better than .320."
In his batting cage work with Reds hitting coach Don Long, Hamilton is making a major effort to keep his head from flying out when he swings; that was an occasional problem for him in the minors. He's also focused on hitting the ball on a line or on the ground. Hamilton's speed will be worthless on fly balls to shallow center field, while he has a chance to make even routine choppers to second base a thrill ride when he's flying down the line.
That said, the Reds think Hamilton has enough strength to be more than a singles hitter, provided he learns how to manage the strike zone and make pitchers put the ball in a place where he can drive it. Yankees outfielder Brett Gardner didn't scare too many people as a rookie, and he just signed a four-year, $52 million contract extension.
"Billy's stronger than you think," Long said. "He has the ability to hit the ball hard on a line. If he mis-hits it and gets a little bit on top of the ball, it will be on the ground but it won't be a rollover ground ball."
Can Hamilton draw enough walks to raise his OBP to a level where he can steal 80-100 bases? That's usually a challenge for hitters with minimal power, because opposing pitchers can fill up the strike zone with no fear of the long ball. Hamlton might be in a different category because his reputation as a base stealer precedes him. Pitchers know that a walk to Hamilton is basically the equivalent of a double or a triple, so they might be inclined to squeeze the ball a little more tightly.
While Hamilton has spent hours and hours working on his bunting with the help of DeShields, Davis wants to see the bunt be a complement to his offensive game rather than a focal point.
"I don't care how fast you are, you can't just hit the ball on the ground," Davis said. "There's nobody in the big leagues who's going to stay in the big leagues bunting. Anybody who thinks that is tricking themselves. He has to learn to control his barrel. He has to be a hitter first, and the speed is an extra thing for him. If he has the ability to hit .260 or .270, he'll bunt .295 or .300. But he can't bunt .260."
Hamilton's professional role model is Toronto shortstop Jose Reyes, a player with 425 steals and a .439 career slugging percentage. "I don't want to be known as a slap hitter," he said. "I want to be more of a gap-to-gap, line drive guy."
As Hamilton pursues that objective, everyone involved concedes that setbacks are inevitable. What happens if it's May and he looks lost and Cincinnati is falling behind St. Louis and Pittsburgh in the National League Central? Will the Reds stick by him even as fans go into full-fledged panic mode?
When Long talked to Hamilton's minor-league managers and coaches over the winter, one theme kept repeating itself: The kid might start out slowly, but he's mentally tough enough not to succumb to bad days, and smart enough to learn quickly and play better as the season progresses.
"We have to have the patience and understanding of where is he today and what can he become, and create a vision for him and understand that it's going to be a process," Long said. "There are always going to be expectations. He's really competing with himself to get a little better every day."
Hamilton has the speed, desire, athleticism and support system to be an impact leadoff hitter on a winning team. The only commodity he lacks is time.