Fay: Jesse Winker may finally get to show his value with the Reds at big-league level

CINCINNATI -- Jesse Winker is 23 years old. That seems hard to believe because he has been on the Reds' prospect radar for years.

That’s because Winker has been a guy who always hit in a system with a major dearth of hitters. That’s led to him being over-hyped, over-anticipated and over-scrutinized.

So when Winker hit just three home runs in 380 at-bats at Triple-A last year, it raised some red flags. It’s hard to be an everyday corner outfielder with power numbers like that.

The extenuating circumstances eased the Reds’ concerns. Winker spent almost a month on the disabled list with a strained right wrist. That’s a particularly power-robbing injury for a left-handed hitter. 

“I do think the injuries affected his power,” said Jeff Graupe, the Reds director of player development. “I’ve seen him win two home run-hitting contests against guys who are known for big power. I’ve seen him drive balls.

“To me, he went out there and competed with what he had. He wasn’t able to generate the power that he has in the past. But he competed. He hit .300. He got on base. He became a productive team member, despite being physically limited.”

Winker thinks his power will return.

“I don’t question my power,” he said. “I don’t think anybody has. So far in my career, I haven’t been that 30-plus (home run) guy, but I’ve always been pretty consistent -- 15, 15, 15. Then last year, I only hit three. I’m aware of that. The ball didn’t fly over the fence last year. In the future, I’m sure it will.”

He also admits that the wrist made things difficult.

“I’m not one to make excuses for performance,” he said. “But it’s never fun when you have to play hurt. I fought through it. I still think I put together a productive year.”

With Winker you have to define production differently than you did with Jay Bruce or Adam Duvall. Winker is not likely to ever be a 30-home run guy. He hit 16, 15 and 13 in his first three full years in the minors. Maturity and playing half his games in Great American Ball Park should move that total toward 25.

But Winker has always hit for average. His slash line in the minors is .297/.366/.459. He struck out only once every 7.59 at-bats last year and hit .308.

“We had a good talk about that as an organization,” Reds manager Bryan Price said. “We spend too much time worrying about power numbers. Power is mostly about extra-base hits. It doesn’t have to be reflected in homers. It’s run production. It’s hard contact. He’s a gap-to-gap hitter. The power numbers will show themselves in time."

Winker is major league-ready -- or very close to it. But, right now, there’s nowhere to play him. Two of players obtained in the rebuilding effort -- Duvall and Scott Schebler -- established themselves as the corner outfielders last season.

Winker is having a good camp. He was hitting .297 with a home run and five RBI in 37 at-bats going into Monday. But he’s in tough spot as far as making the team. The Reds don’t like to use young players as bench players.

“As much as we talk about our particular set of circumstances right now, things can change, things can change through the performance of others, things can change through injuries,” Price said. “There’s a lot of different ways for these guys to find their way on to the team and into the lineup.”

The most important thing for Winker this spring is he’s healthy.

“Wrist is feeling great,” he said.

Winker will likely start the year at Triple-A -- a phone call away from the big leagues. The key is playing well for Louisville.

“Look at the way Schebler played last year at Triple-A,” Price said. “When the opportunity came, it forced us to give him a serious look. If he’s hitting .242 in Triple-A, there’s no pressing sense of obligation that he’s got to be the guy to come up and play on an everyday basis.

"I’d like Jesse and anyone that is close to or ready for the big leagues to press us to make a tough decision late in camp to keep themselves in camp as late as they can. Things happen. You can’t ignore performance.”

Winker has had performance since the Reds took him with the 49th pick in 2012 draft. He was the club's minor league hitter of the year in 2013 and 2015.

And he has performed this spring.

“I think any time you’re in big-league camp, you’re trying to make the team,” he said. “That’s the mindset you need to have. My job is to play hard. All that decision making is out of my hands.”

John Fay is a freelance sports columnist; this column represents his opinion. Contact him at johnfayman@aol.com

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