Reds fan Tom Sullivan of Charleston gets autographs from Reds pitcher Homer Bailey (34) and first-year manager Bryan Price.
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:Bailey on the Reds' need for improvement: "I think what we need to look at instead of the playoff losses is creating habits in the regular season. We didn't develop good habits throughout the season as a whole. We didn't do the little things, the base running, the errors, the different things our pitchers need to do. We have to do a better job of doing the small things. We're not a team that's going to get a bunch of free agents. If you look on paper, there are teams that are going to be better than us. There's nothing you can do about that, whether it's Los Angeles, New York, St. Louis.''Welsh, a former Columbus Clipper, on pitching against the Charleston Charlies in 1979-80: "I remember one time down at Watt Powell Park they had what they used to call around here a gully-washer of a storm. As I recall, they had a very sparse grounds crew. And they came out, and that wind was whipping, and they tried to get the tarp on the field. It wasn't a very good idea because when they got the tarp outstretched, the wing got under the tarp, and it picked it up like a parachute and flung it up against one of the light standards. And it was flapping like a big flag, and I thought they were going to bring the light standard down. And they get everybody out of the stadium because it was a mess. I think we got rained out for two days.''Price on Joey Votto, who led the league in walks but contributed just 73 RBIs as the No. 3 hitter in the order: "What kind of production can you get from a hitter who has to go outside the strike zone to hit the ball? Can we expect more doubles and home runs from Joey if he has to go outside the zone to hit? Probably not.''Bailey on Price: "Bryan has a great baseball mind. One thing he's good at is recognizing problems and solving them. And that's typically your first step, recognizing that you do have a problem. We know that we did. He's really good at communicating and going about things in the right way.''Bailey on Reds Country: "It's pretty neat to see how vast it is. We understand that it's tough to get to Cincinnati. You drive two-and-a-half hours to the game and turn around and go back after the game. So we try to reach out as best we can to see people who can't always come to the stadium.''Price on players likely to show improvement: "We've talked a little bit about the tail end of our order, going with [Todd] Frazier, [Zack] Cosart and [Devin] Mesoraco. Those guys have a lot of talent and already have become good major-league players and can become outstanding major-league players. So we hope for some growth there.''Welsh on how Chapman, the closer, will be used: "I imagine you'll see him in the eighth inning. That's one thing that Bryan Price has said already on this trip. He's going to use him differently. He doesn't believe in all the matchup stuff that other managers do. And he really wants to utilize the best of him, and one of the ways to utilize the best of him is that you use him when you need him, when the game is on the line. And I think you're going to see that more from him.''Price on whether free agent pitcher Bronson Arroyo will re-sign with the Reds: "I would say it's unlikely. You can never say never in these situations because we have a great appreciation for what he does, not just on the mound but for our club. We'd love to have him. We'll certainly miss him. But at this point in time, he's a free agent and eventually someone will step up and give him a nice offer.''
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.''Mejias-Bream, a third baseman and the Reds' minor league player of 2013, on his expectations: "I want to try and build on last season and go from there. My potential is to reach the major leagues. I think I can do a lot up there. How fast I get there depends on myself.''
Reach Mike Whiteford at email@example.com.