CINCINNATI – Billy Hamilton is more than the focal point of the 2014 Reds. It's this simple: As Hamilton goes, so will the Reds.
Bright, wiry and fast, the 23-year-old rookie is about to take his place as the Reds everyday center fielder - and more important, their lead-off hitter - on Opening Day Monday.
"I am ready," Hamilton says. "I’ve been working hard, and I feel like I’m ready."
Some people say Hamilton could revolutionize baseball with his sensational speed and base stealing. Hamilton set the professional record with 155 steals in 2012. In a September call-up with the Reds last year, he stole 13 bases in 14 tries.
Before he does that, though, Hamilton needs to prove that he can get on base against big-league pitching.
"You can’t really steal bases without getting on base," Hamilton knows. "I’ve really been working on my all-around game. And I feel like I’m in a place now where I’m confident. I’m feeling better at the plate."
No one is expecting Hamilton to hit .368 with a .429 on-base percentage like he did last September.
But Hamilton has big shoes to fill. He's replacing one of baseball's best leadoff hitters last year. Shin Soo-Choo hit .285 with a .423 OBP and scored 107 runs.
Hamilton's spring numbers -- a .327 batting average with a .381 on-base percentage, and nine steals in nine tries – are reason for optimism. He also led the team with 14 runs scored.
"He's been terrific in every way," manager Bryan Price said. "His overall approach about what he needed to do to get better has been impeccable. He's been great at seeing pitches. He's been great about keeping those high fly balls out of the air.
"He's brought an air of confidence I wasn't sure was going to show up."
Hamilton played winter ball in Puerto Rico, working on getting on base. He spent part of the winter in Arizona working with Delino DeShields, who manages the Reds' Double-A team in Pensacola and stole 463 bases during his major league career.
So when Hamilton came to spring training, he already had a leg up on his spring agenda.
Hamilton worked hard in Arizona to improve his bunting, rising early for practice and tips from Reds coach Billy Hatcher.
What Drew Stubbs, the speedy former center fielder, failed to grasp, Hamilton embraced.
"Now is the time with the help I have that I can become a great bunter," Hamilton said at spring training. "It’s going to help my game, eventually, with getting on base more, cutting down some of my swings, and saving some of my hits by going with bunting.
"Yeah, it’s going to be a big part of my game."
The Reds have little doubt that Hamilton can field his position. Hatcher is convinced that Hamilton is a Gold Glove winner in waiting. He’s also convinced Hamilton's hitting won’t be far behind.
"He’s going to make some mistakes, but they're going to be aggressive mistakes," Hatcher said. "All we’re trying to do right now is minimize his mistakes, trying to make him comfortable.
"The sooner we make him comfortable, the better off he’s going to be."
Price will try to lessen the pressure on Hamilton by keeping the focus on other parts of the lineup.
"We're not going to ask anybody to carry too much of the load," Price said. "If we're going to be the team we think we can be, we've got to disperse the responsibility in our lineup and we've got to improve — not just hoping Billy can handle the leadoff spot, but hoping to get more production from the other seven guys who are going to be in lineup on a regular basis and also asking our bench to give us energy and performance."
Before one spring workout, Hamilton walked through the clubhouse wearing a gray T-shirt that pretty much summed up what he's hoping to show during the season. There were two words on the front:
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