Hamilton holds key to Reds’ 2014

Tom Usher

December 27, 2013

Super speedster Billy Hamilton has to get on base.

That’s the only way the 2014 Reds’ lineup is going to work properly.

Reds general manager Walt Jocketty committed to Hamilton as their center fielder late last week. It came just days after Shin Soo-Choo gladly gobbled up the Rangers offer of $130 million over seven years.

That was hardly a surprise. Choo’s agent, Scott Boras, had made it known as soon as the season ended that Choo’s price would be close to $20 million per year for at least five years.

The Reds said no thanks, even though Choo hit .285 with 21 home runs and had an on-base percentage of .423. With a payroll of $79 million, there was no way Choo was ever going to be signed.

That opened up the door for Hamilton.

Hamilton made a flashy debut last September when he was called up to Cincinnati and was 13 of 14 on stolen bases. In 19 at-bats, he .368 with two doubles and one RBI.

Hamilton may be the fastest player the Reds have ever had.

In 2012, between Class A Bakersfield and AA Pensacola, he stole a professional baseball single-season record 155 bases. That was coming off a 2011 season in which in stole 103 at Class A Dayton.

So what’s the problem?

Well, Hamilton has struggled bunting, hitting down on the ball and generally getting on base at times over his career.

He hit .278 at Dayton in 2011. In 2012, he batted .323 at A, but fell to .286 at AA.

Then, at AAA Louisville last season, he hit only .256 with 75 stolen bases. He struck out 102 times with 38 walks. His on-base percentage was only .308. He had 18 doubles, four triples and six home runs.

As for his position, he was moved to center field last year and did an adequate job with seven errors. Part of the reason for the move was at shortstop he was clearing out an area behind the first-base stands. He made 39 errors in 2011 and 31 in 2012.

“It will be an adjustment for him.” Jocketty said recently on the MLB Network. … “We’ll have him work on his bunting.”

But Jocketty said naming Hamilton the starter in center fielder was a move the organization endorsed.

“All our people believe in Billy Hamilton,” Jocketty said. “He’s a great athlete.”

And if he can hit the same .255 he did at AAA last year, he will be the Reds’ leadoff hitter for years to come.

But Jocketty must also consider the other side to the scenario.

What if Hamilton is batting .205 on May 25?

For now, Plan B would be outfielder/second baseman Skip Schumaker, who was signed as a free agent in late November. Schumaker, a career .285 hitter, batted .263 in 319 at-bats with the Dodgers last year.

In his last three years in St. Louis, he hit .276 (2012), .283 (2011) and .265 (2010). He’s a solid doubles hitter, with little power or speed. His career totals are 25 home runs and 22 stolen bases since his debut in 2005.

Unless there’s a trade, the only other option for center would be Chris Heisey, who hit .237 last year. Heisey has proven to be better in platoon duty than as an everyday player.

Outside of center field, it should be the same lineup as a year ago, only with a healthy Ryan Ludwick in left field. Ludwick suffered a separated shoulder on Opening Day last year and never returned to form when he returned late in the year.

It’s still Jay Bruce in right, Joey Votto at first, Brandon Phillips at second, Zack Cozart at shortstop and Todd Frazier at third. In spite of trying to deal Phillips to the Yankees, he remains the anchor of the infield.

Devin Mesoraco takes over full time behind the plate after Ryan Hanigan was traded to Tampa Bay. Mesoraco may have a livelier bat, but the Reds will miss Hanigan’s strong, accurate arm. He threw out baserunners at a 44 percent clip in 2012.

The Reds are still in talks with free agent Bronson Arroyo, but he continues to look at other options. Without Arroyo, the rotation should still be a plus, providing Johnny Cueto can return from his numerous side/lat strains a year ago. Mat Latos, Homer Bailey, Mike Leake and Tony Cingrani form a solid rotation.

Aroldis Chapman is back as the closer.

The key will be center fielder.

Hamilton can be a game changer. But only if he can consistently find ways to get on base.