2/21/2013 5:00 P.M. ET
Hamilton using spring to ease into outfield switch
Former Reds star Davis tutoring speedster based on own experiences
By Mark Sheldon / MLB.com
GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- All about repetition and getting it right, Spring Training drills can certainly get tedious. There is a method to the madness, however, as players learn to react quickly and know what to do when various situations present themselves.
Top Reds prospect Billy Hamilton is performing his drills and simultaneously trying to shorten a learning curve. Hamilton, 22, is learning a new position in center field after being switched from shortstop.
"It's going real good. I feel like I'm learning more stuff each and every day," Hamilton said.
The changing of positions has been a process that actually began in the fall, when Hamilton came to Goodyear for the Reds' instructional league and then to play in the Arizona Fall League.
Hamilton was given a tutor after last season that could identify perfectly with this change. Reds special assistant to the general manager and former star center fielder Eric Davis also started out as a shortstop.
Thus far, Davis has liked what he has seen from his star pupil.
"He's taking to it like a duck in water," Davis said. "All the basic stuff -- going to get the ball and all that stuff -- he's a natural. You can see how when he played shortstop, how he ran down pop ups. He doesn't have a problem tracking the ball. I've see him run all the way down the left field [line] to catch a pop up. That tells you can he track the ball."
Hamilton, who was rated the No. 11 overall prospect in the game by MLB.com last month, set the baseball world on fire in 2012 when his speed netted him a professional record 155 stolen bases at Class A Bakersfield and Double-A Pensacola. In 2011, Hamilton swiped 103 bases.
Looking for ways to lessen the toll on Hamilton's body, and with young Zack Cozart solidified at shortstop, the Reds decided to make a move. Hamilton was told to learn center field after the season. All expectations are that he will begin 2013 at Triple-A Louisville.
Cincinnati acquired Shin-Soo Choo from the Indians to be its center fielder and leadoff hitter for this season. Choo can be a free agent next winter, and will likely seek his fortune elsewhere. That should pave the way for Hamilton to be in the Reds' 2014 Opening Day lineup.
But there is still some learning to do.
"It's just a matter of playing the games," Davis said. "Learning how to play the hitters, learning which guys can drive the ball to center field, which guys can't and that just comes with game experience. His throwing is getting a lot better. At shortstop, everything was quick and short. In the outfield, you have longer throws and have to stretch it out a little more.
"The thing that separates Billy from a lot of people is he's a student of the game. He has so much pride that he doesn't like to embarrass himself. You can tell him something once, maybe twice, and it's like a recorder in his brain. He can turn around and implement what you told him to do very quickly. That's not the case with all youngsters. … Once he gets a full year of consistent outfield play, you'll see a dynamic center fielder."
As the Reds are poised to begin Cactus League play vs. the Indians on Friday, the next stage of Hamilton's apprenticeship will begin. He will be tested with real game situations against Major League hitters. But as a young, non-roster player in camp, it's unknown how much action he'll see. Reds manager Dusty Baker has to get Choo -- a long-time right fielder in Cleveland -- enough time to get used to center field also.
"I know everybody wants to see him and he's exciting, but I have to get everybody on the club ready. I play everybody," Baker said. "Guys around here get a whole lot more time in than most rookies in camp do. They get more time than I got."
Baker has been watching Hamilton in the outfield this spring. While he knows his speed will be an asset defensively, it can also cause some issues for someone new.
"Speed can also create some things you shouldn't do," Baker said. "You have to slow the game down. There aren't many guys that have enough speed where they have to slow down. Most guys need some more speed.
"You know he has a lot of speed and has a very good arm, but you haven't seen him get jumps and reads off the bat. It's hard to judge in practice."
Offensively, Hamilton batted .311 with a .410 on-base percentage and 112 runs over 132 games with Bakersfield and Pensacola. The club wants him to work on his bunting skills so his speed can create even more chances to get on base.
"I've been working hard to get to big league camp for a chance to prove myself with these guys," Hamilton said.
A second-round pick of the Reds in the 2009 Draft, Hamilton turned down an offer to play football near home at Mississippi State. Not a shock with his speed, he was recruited to be a wide receiver even though he stands at only 6-feet and 160 pounds.
Instead of over-the-shoulder catches in an end zone, the Reds envision a future of Hamilton snagging long fly balls at the warning track. Hamilton sees that destiny getting closer to being a reality.
"I'm going to show the team I'm working hard, trying to get better and learning," Hamilton said. "They can tell if someone is ready just by watching them. You don't just have to prove it in the games. The more you do in the practices and workouts shows them you're ready. My job is to keep learning and I will be ready."