Reds prospect Billy Hamilton signs an autograph for Hunter Nieberball of Milton at the Reds Caravan.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Once he reaches base, Billy Hamilton knows there's still much work to be done.It's a good bet he'll steal a base or two. After all, he set a professional baseball record last year by swiping 155 of them in 192 attempts, starting the year at Class A Bakersfield and finishing at Class AA Pensacola.But if he doesn't steal or even make an attempt, he can still be useful by distracting the pitcher or maybe convincing him that it's best to throw fastballs, thereby giving his catcher a better opportunity to deny Hamilton a theft. Or he might induce a pitchout that is often wasteful and helps work the count in the hitter's favor.The 22-year-old Hamilton, a 6-foot-1, 160-pound Mississippi native, eventually is expected to be the Cincinnati Reds' leadoff hitter and center fielder, probably in 2014, and he should be a good fit.
"If you have that baserunner who is driving the pitcher crazy,'' said Reds broadcaster Jeff Brantley, "and you have all-star-caliber hitters at the plate, it's only going to be more run production for the Reds. And let's face it, with that pitching staff, they don't need a whole lot.''"My job,'' said Hamilton, "is to get on base, mess up the pitcher and hopefully he'll throw a bad pitch to the next hitter.''In light of their successful 2012 season and talent like Hamilton, the Reds were sounding upbeat at their annual Winter Caravan in front of Macy's Thursday night at Charleston Town Center.In attendance, in addition to Hamilton and Brantley, were third baseman Todd Frazier, pitcher Logan Ondrusek, broadcaster Jim Kelch and vice-president of baseball operations Dick Williams. A crowd of about 500 lined up for autographs and photographs.Another reason for their upbeat spirit is last year's Central Division title and 97-65 record, the second-best in baseball behind Washington's 98-64. The Reds, however, lost the division series to the Giants, winning the first two games on the road and dropping the final three at home.Hamilton, who likely will spend the season at Class AAA Louisville, knows his presence on the bases can be beneficial in more ways than one."I try to make it easier for the guys behind me,'' he said. "I talk to the guys [who hit] behind me, and they say like, You make it easier for me. I'm getting fastball after fastball.''The Reds' second-round pick in the 2009 draft, Hamilton has been a shortstop throughout his pro career but has been switched to center field as part of the team's long-range plan. For this season, the Reds expect Shin-Soo Choo to play center and bat leadoff, giving Hamilton a final year of preparation for the role the following year.Hamilton began learning his new position in the recent Arizona Fall League. "I knew I could do it,'' he said. "It wasn't a big deal to me. I did pretty well in a month and a half. I still have a little bit to work on. But I'm comfortable.''He had a chance to sign a football scholarship and play wide receiver at Mississippi State but, in light of his modest size, chose baseball.
"Football was a sport that I loved to play, too,'' he said, "and Mississippi State was one of the colleges I loved watching when I was growing up. But my Mom thought I was too little to be playing football, so she kind of made [the decision] easy for me. I listen to her. I trust her. And so far it's working out for me.''Caravan participants touched on other subjects:Frazier on relief efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in his hometown of Tom's River, N.J.: "It's been great. People are starting to get back in their homes, some are still waiting to hear from the insurance places. It was pretty tough. We were not expecting anything like that. It's never happened before. A lot of my friends and family were affected. I've raised about $30,000 with the help of a lot of others, but I'm trying to do as much as I can. The efforts of people doing that are really cool to see. It's tough to talk about because it affected so many people that you love.''Brantley on Aroldis Chapman's move from the bullpen to the rotation: "With Aroldis, I don't have any doubt he can start. The only issue right now is how much can he pitch in the rotation versus how many times can he pitch out of the bullpen. He's very similar to Justin Verlander in terms of raw skills, and you just don't get that everyday. I think you owe it to yourself as an organization to get the maximum amount out of your talent, and the only way you can do it is to give him a chance to start. He's done it his whole life. That's how he grew up.''Brantley on whether Chapman will remain in the rotation: "The powers that be in this organization are smart enough to know that if, four to 10 starts down the road that things aren't going well, they'll put him back in the bullpen, and they'll go back to what they had last year.''Ondrusek on the Reds' camaraderie: "We have a good group of guys. If a new guy comes in, we get along real well. If somebody gets hurt, there's somebody there to step up. It speaks to the resiliency of the club.''Williams on the Reds' selection as Baseball America's Organization of the Year: "This award is pretty special because it covers our scouting department, both amateur and pro. It covers our player development, the decisions we've made in the front office. We talked to [Baseball America] and asked them why they picked us, and it really had a lot to do with the fact that we build from within. And Baseball America likes to reward organizations that sign and develop their own players.''Brantley, elaborating on Hamilton's potential on the bases: "Anytime you have speed on the basepaths and you're having to face a difficult hitter, it's hard. To know that the guy can [steal] a base in the blink of an eye makes it even that much more difficult. Not only to hold the baserunner but now you have to face the likes of Brandon Phillips, Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, Ryan Ludwig. And that's when [those hitters] are at their best. They're at their best when they have runners on base on or scoring position. Statistics prove that.''Frazier on whether third baseman Scott Rolen will return this season or retire: "I wish I knew. That's a big question, so we'll see.''Frazier, a former Rutgers baseball player, on facing West Virginia: "They always had big guys on the team. I thought they were all on steroids. They were always good competition. I liked coming down here. How far is the University from here?'' Frazier on his favorite Frank Sinatra song: "'Fly Me to the Moon' is pretty cool, but there's a bunch.''Reach Mike Whiteford at email@example.com.