Reds' Alonso trying other positions
With first base taken by Votto, move might be in order
GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Reds first-base prospect Yonder Alonso's supersized hitting ability should pave his express trip to the Major Leagues. It might have by now if there wasn't one very sturdy obstacle blocking the 22-year-old's path.It's only the best hitter on the team and a fellow first baseman in Joey Votto. This was a dilemma seen coming from the very moment Alonso was selected seventh overall in the 2008 First-Year Player Draft and signed to a five-year, $4.55 million Major League contract. At the time, Votto was still a rookie but a successful one, but Cincinnati has a Draft policy of taking the best available player and not selecting according to need. Alonso reached Triple-A last season and his Major League promotion is only a matter of time -- if he can find a place to play. To that end, the Reds have worked him out this spring at third base and both corner-outfield spots. It's dispelled the common speculation that when Alonso was eventually called up, it would be Votto whom would be moved to left field. "It will take some time to figure it out," Cincinnati general manager Walt Jocketty said. "That's why we want to see [Alonso] at different positions. He's got a great bat and Joey is going to be at first base for a long time. I don't see moving Joey." Eager and willing to do anything to realize his dream, Alonso is willing to depart the only position he's ever really played. He played some third base, but mostly first base, at the Univ. of Miami. Since joining the Reds organization, he's exclusively played first base. Alonso heeded an organization request to come to camp in better shape. He added more upper body muscle and says he's become more nimble to get better range. He played third base and left field during winter ball and in the Arizona Fall League. "It doesn't matter where I play as long as I play," Alonso said. "As long as I get a shot and prove to the guys I can play there. In my head, I know I can play. I just want to get my shot. I'm doing everything, and they're trying everything, so I can [get to the Majors]." The Reds even kicked around the idea of trying Alonso behind the plate and let him catch in a couple of bullpen sessions. There were no immediate plans to stick Alonso in the middle of the battle for the vacancy in left field. "We just wanted to expose him to some different positions and see if he feels comfortable," Jocketty said. "We'll see how it goes. If it goes well enough, we'll put him in some games at different positions. It would just make him more valuable to us if he can play other places. He'll get some playing time at those positions in Triple-A if he shows he can do that." Lots of friends Alonso has yet to reach the Majors, but he has no shortage of big leaguers who are a phone call away when he needs advice. Some are even closer. During offseasons before and after turning pro, Alonso has worked out with friend, fellow Miami resident and Yankees superstar Alex Rodriguez. Alonso also spent a couple of weeks this past winter with Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira. "Imagine the conversations," Alonso said. "I was picking his brain about first base. He gave me a routine and everything. I just got after it." During winter ball in Puerto Rico, Alonso had a locker between Nationals catcher Ivan Rodriguez and Mets infielder Alex Cora. Little did Rodriguez and Cora know, they would have an awestruck but diligent kid tagging after them wherever they went. "They said 'Can you shut up?' because I was always asking questions like, 'How do you do this' and 'What do you think of that?'" Alonso said. "Or it was, 'What's your routine for BP?' At the end of the day, they probably respected me more because I wanted to learn. I wasn't some first-round guy that didn't care or felt it didn't matter. I came out and wanted to learn every single day. "I know that I've been spoiled. I definitely don't take it for granted. I get to meet all of these guys and play baseball with all of them and just hang out with them. The coolest thing is seeing how they are as a person over a baseball player." Of all the big leaguers Alonso has befriended and learned from, some of the most valuable advice has come from the one guy who would seem to have the most reason to be worried -- Votto. Yet instead of being standoffish and secretive in the name of competition or turf warfare, Votto has been the 180-degree opposite. "He's a great baseball player and probably the best on the team right now. But he's a good person at heart," Alonso said. "He cares about people and he cares about you. It's really tough to find guys like that, especially at the same position. Maybe they might not talk to you as much. But he's always like, 'Come on, let's go.' He opened his arms the first day I was here.
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"I'm always trying to learn from him. He's really good about it. I was like, 'Wow, I can't believe he's so open.' He's a great teacher. He's always been like, 'You have to do this,' or 'Get here on time, wear your uniform the right way,' -- all of those things that go a long way."Why would Votto help the guy seeking his job? For starters, he doesn't view there to be an awkward situation, or even a situation, that should draw attention. He's just one teammate helping another. "He's trying to do his job and I'm trying to do mine," Votto said. "There are 30 teams and tons of first basemen. Obviously, I want to play for the Reds and he wants to play for the Reds. We've got time. He's not in the Major Leagues yet. Hopefully he will get there. When he does, that's when we'll figure it out. Right now, I treat everybody the exact same way. Nobody gets different treatment." Getting comfortable Because he signed late in the summer of 2008, Alonso was limited to six games at Class A Sarasota that season. His first full professional year came last season, and it was an advanced learning experience. Alonso started at high Class A again and reached Double-A Carolina, hitting a combined .300 with nine home runs, 52 RBIs, a .374 on-base percentage and a .464 slugging percentage. In June, he missed two months on Carolina's disabled list after breaking the hamate bone in his right hand, which required surgery to fix. The lost at-bats were made up at the end of the year. Alonso played five games in the playoffs for Triple-A Louisville and then moved on to the Arizona Fall League before going to winter ball. "I definitely feel a lot better than last year," Alonso said. "Last year, everything was new. It was frustrating even with the guys or on the field and how they play. It was hard. Maybe last year I didn't take as many risks. This year, I'll be like, 'Let's go for it,' like I did in college." Inside the Reds' clubhouse last spring, Alonso largely kept to himself and tried very hard not to make much noise. He was guarded during media interviews and careful not to be controversial. The difference is obvious to any Alonso observers during this camp. He's seems more comfortable in his own skin, more willing to talk and very easygoing. Friendships have been formed throughout the room, especially within the large Latin, Spanish-speaking contingent. When there is a group gathered talking and laughing, Alonso is often right in the middle of it. "Last year, I was probably at my locker 95 percent of the time," Alonso said. "This year, I'm hanging out with the guys more. The guys call me and we hang out, especially the Latin guys. My mom is in town and she'll make Latin food and they'll say, 'Hey, bring me some.' It's a good conversation starter. You just get in there and talk about food. We talk about other things, and before you know it, we're talking about baseball. I'm getting to know the guys and learning from the guys. It's good." How will this turn out? If Alonso is more at ease with himself, it's not a leap to believe he could be even more comfortable in the batter's box. That could make life harder on opposing pitchers, which in turn could make a decision harder for the Reds' front office about what to do with this gifted hitter -- especially if Votto isn't being relocated to another spot. Coming into this season, Alonso was ranked the organization's No. 2 prospect by Baseball America and No. 30 in the game overall by MLB.com. The Reds have only two true first basemen in camp -- Votto and Alonso. It's likely that Alonso will see time as the designated hitter during spring games. "I remember coming up as a kid when [the Giants] had Willie McCovey and Orlando Cepeda on the same team," Reds manager Dusty Baker said. "Both of them are in the Hall of Fame. They ended up moving one of them to the outfield." True, but after several years, Cepeda was traded by San Francisco. There was a time in the early 1970s when the Reds had two good young first basemen in Tony Perez and Lee May on the roster. Eventually, May was traded to the Astros in the deal that brought Joe Morgan. "That's what happens. You hope not," Baker said. "The options are pretty good if and when that time comes." One way or another, Alonso's time in the Majors is right around the corner.
Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.