GOODYEAR, Ariz. — Jesse Winker has been the Great Hitting Hope for the Reds pretty much since they drafted him in the first round in 2012.
Winker, 22, hasn’t disappointed. He was organization’s minor league hitter of the year in 2013 and 2015. He has played in the Futures Game. And he led the Arizona Fall League in hitting in 2014 (.338/.440/.559 in 19 games).
He gives the Reds something lacking in their organization: A high on-base percentage hitter with some pop in his bat. He has hit .292/.397/.471 over his four professional seasons. Winker has walked nearly as often (231) as has struck out (276) in the minors.
With the opening in left field, Winker has an outside shot of making the Reds out of spring training.
“I would not say he can’t make the team,” Price said. “I would not say that. We know right now that we’ve got some guys competing for left field. I would say Adam Duvall, Scott Schebler and Yorman (Rodriguez) are probably — I hate to say the favorites — but they’re guys we’re looking at. They’ve done what they need to do at the Triple-A level.
“Jesse hasn’t gotten to Triple-A and mastered that. However, sometimes you just feel like a guy’s ready and give him an opportunity to play on a regular basis.
"I think right now I’d like to see him start the season at Triple-A. But I’d never say never with this kid. I know he’s a special talent.”
Winker is outgoing and personable. Think of a younger Jay Bruce. Winker knows his place in the organization, so he’s not going to declare himself ready for the bigs.
“Naturally as a competitor, you want to come in and compete for a job,” Winker said. “I’m here to work hard, have fun and learn a lot. And let the chips fall."
A former Reds hitting coach used to say the key to getting players with high on-base percentage in the system is to draft them. Winker was that guy when the Reds picked him 49th overall (the supplemental pick for Ramon Hernandez) out of Olympia High in Orlando, Florida. Winker put up a .443 on-base in his first pro year and that was in the Pioneer League, an advanced place for a high school draftee to start.
“Guys who have a high on-base percentage have a great ability to get hits or they have the ability to know the zone and pick the right pitches,” Reds hitting coach Don Long said. “And, if they get the right pitch, they’re not fouling a lot of them off. They’re able to get it in play hard and lay off pitcher’s pitches.”
The mental part of hitting is paramount to a player’s success. Winker has a big part of that down.
“Talking to him, he really believes he can hit,” Long said. “That’s important.”
This is Winker’s second big league camp.
“It’s going great,” Winker said. “I got out here a little early to get things shaking. It’s nice to get on the field and be around the guys.
“I’m just here to learn. I learned a lot last year. I’m going to continue to learn a lot this year. I feel like that’s a good habit to get into. Come in here, learn a lot from guys, learn how they go about their stuff.”
Winker played all of last year at Double-A Pensacola. It was a typical year for him in that he started a bit slow and then got better as the year went on. He hit .248/.352/.349 in the first half and .316/.426/.516 in the second half. The second half included a stretch where he homered in five straight games.
“I did start kind of slow,” he said. “But things turned around the second half. We won a lot the second half, too. That was a lot of fun. We made the playoffs. It was just a blast to be part of a good group there. It was nice to see some balls drop as well.”
“I asked him what the difference was between the two halves,” Long said. “It wasn’t really anything mechanical. He felt like it was really being stubborn on being ready to attack the part of the zone where he likes the ball and not worrying about it if it was a called strike and it wasn’t in that zone. If he hit a ball hard and it was caught, not allow that to affect him and chase the hit and expand the zone.”
Winker is not a burner, but he has played a solid left field. He had only two errors each of the last three years.
“I think all parts of my game could be improved,” he said. “As a player, you never want to be satisfied. Get in the cages, get on the field and work.
Winker knows the fans expect a lot of him. He has been at Redsfest and on the Winter Caravan each of the last three years.
“It’s really cool,” he said. “You see why the Reds fans are the best fans when you get to be part of those things. It’s been a blast to be part of it. The fan base is incredible. I can’t wait to be a part to it. I’m really looking forward to it.”
So are the fans.
John Fay is freelance sports columnist. This column represents his opinion.