Hamilton could be key for Reds
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The Cincinnati Reds' annual Winter Caravan, a 17-city, 3,000-mile promotional swing through five states, arrived at Charleston Town Center Friday night, offering upbeat baseball talk a few weeks before spring training.
Among the most upbeat was first-year manager Bryan Price, who saw visions of speedy Billy Hamilton dancing off first base, annoying the opposing pitcher.
"He drives people crazy,'' said Price, standing outside the Macy's entrance. "When [a pitcher] is rushing his delivery and when he has a bigger focus on the base-runner than the hitter, it really sets the table for the offense.''
At the moment, the Reds' biggest question is the center field and leadoff job - a job that, if all goes well, will go to Hamilton, who set a professional record by stealing 155 bases in 2012 at the Class A and AAA levels.
At the Reds' AAA affiliate in Louisville last year, the Mississippi native stole 75 bases in 90 attempts, but his hitting and his ability to reach base raised concerns. He batted just .256 with a .308 on-base percentage.
To help prepare for a possible big-league promotion, he's been working this winter with Reds instructor Delino Deshields in Goodyear, Ariz., fine-tuning both his base-running and base-stealing skills.
"We're trying to get him more acclimated and closer to being ready to help us,'' said Price. "Right now, he's our starting center fielder, and he has every opportunity to run and take that job. But he's got to earn it. There are certain keys to being a regular top-of-the-order-type guy, and we're working on that. You don't want to do comparisons to the great base stealers of all-time because he hasn't spent enough time in the big leagues yet.''
The 51-year-old Price was joined on the Charleston stop by pitchers Homer Bailey and Logan Ondrusek, minor-league third baseman Seth Mejias-Bream, television commentators Chris Welsh and Jeff Piecoro, director of player development Jeff Graupe and Mr. Red. Hundreds of fans and autograph seekers waited in lines that snaked up and down the Town Center corridors.
The Reds finished third in the National League Central last year with a 90-72 record and ended the season on a six-game losing streak, including a loss to the Pirates in the wild-card game.
Welsh, a former pitcher, knows the havoc that a speedster like Hamilton can wreak.
"It creates a lot of problems. And most of all, it creates wet palms," he said. "They perspire more. They worry out there. They're nervous. The pitcher's nervous because he doesn't want to give up a stolen base, and then a possible base hit brings him in for a run. With Hamilton, it's not a matter of if he's going, it's when he's going. I've said on this caravan the Reds have two freaks of nature. They have Aroldis Chapman, the hardest thrower, and they have Hamilton, the fastest runner. I leave the beer line to see both of them.''
Specifically, said Welsh, Hamilton likely will force the opposition to adjust.
"For opposing pitchers,'' he said, "it takes them out of their ability to throw the breaking ball and the off-speed pitch. They're going to want to throw more fastballs because the catcher doesn't want to give up a stolen base. It's easier to steal on a changeup or curveball than it is a fastball. So the hitter knows the fastball is coming. That's one thing. The other thing is the infielders have to play a little different for Hamilton when he's at the plate.''
Other comments on other subjects:
Price on where second baseman Brandon Phillips might bat in the order: "It's hard to say. We'll have to see how things happen with Billy [Hamilton]. Things could change based on whether he makes the team or not. Brandon could hit anywhere from one, two, four, five, six. There's a lot of spots for him.''
Reach Mike Whiteford at firstname.lastname@example.org.