PEORIA, Ariz. -- No young player trying to make it in the Major Leagues aspires to be a bench player, or in Chris Heisey's case, the fourth outfielder on the Reds.
Heisey doesn't resent his current status, but he also doesn't view it as his destiny.
"I still feel like my time for [starting] will come," Heisey said before he went 1-for-2 with an RBI triple in the Reds' 7-5 loss Tuesday to San Diego. "I don't feel too old to be locked in as a fourth outfielder. It's one of those things when you have a good team like we have.
"There have been times when I've had two or three weeks of starts, and I didn't do as well as I liked. In a way, it's my own fault that I'm back in this role. At the same time, I embrace any role I'm in and do the best I can."
Heisey hit .265 with seven home runs and 31 RBIs last season over 120 games, including 80 starts. He shared considerable time in left field with Ryan Ludwick, who caught fire in June as Heisey slumped.
Ludwick seized left field as the regular, a status that became cemented when he re-signed with a two-year, $15 million contract as a free agent. It also meant Heisey was returning to a bench role, especially after the Reds acquired Shin-Soo Choo in a trade with the Indians to be the new center fielder.
"You can't play everybody. I've talked to Heisey about it already," Reds manager Dusty Baker said. "That's a very valuable person on your team, which I've tried to explain to everybody before. That's like my sixth man in basketball. They should give an award like they do for the sixth man in basketball. That person is invaluable."
Heisey, 28, made 36 starts in left field last season, plus 34 in center field and 10 in right field. He also set a career high with his 347 at-bats.
"As the fourth outfielder on this team, Dusty does a great job of giving me playing time," Heisey said. "I don't feel like I'm buried on the bench by any means. I am a contributor on this team and I will take my opportunities and run with them. He's a big fan of mine, and I am a big fan of his. He pumps me up a lot."
Heisey had 18 homers with 50 RBIs in 2011, when he also appeared in 120 games. That year was often spent splitting left-field duties with Jonny Gomes.
"He can pinch-hit, play all three outfield positions if somebody goes down for a period of time," Baker said. "He hasn't shown quite yet if he can play every day or not. People want you to throw him out there for a month or two months. It doesn't work like that. Most chances come in days. They don't come in months."
Since his big league debut in 2010, Heisey has shown his value as a late-inning game changer. In 76 career pinch-hit at-bats, he has a .329 average with six homers and 22 RBIs. Four of those homers came during his rookie year, which tied him with Matt Stairs for the Major League lead.
Because Heisey can turn on a fastball very well, Baker has selectively chosen when he starts against certain types of pitchers. His skills pay off even more in late innings, when relievers are prone to throw more fastballs.
"You just don't know if that first fastball is the only one you get," Heisey said. "It could be the best pitch to hit. I've always been an aggressive-type hitter and [Baker] likes that. I just try to stay aggressive, and he's supportive of that. It's one of the biggest reasons I've had success. I come off of the bench swinging and I'm not trying to draw a walk. I try to make something happen."
Heisey has continued to work on improving his production against secondary pitches. Baker has been seeing some progress.
"He gave up some power last year to try and learn how to round out his game," Baker said. "This year, I think he's going to have some power numbers and a well-rounded game. I've seen the difference in him this year with his approach and the fact that he has one stance. This is a man of a thousand faces when it comes to batting stances. It looks like he's more confident and more comfortable."
This past winter was Heisey's first foray into the arbitration process, but he avoided a hearing last month by signing a one-year, $1.325 million contract. It was certainly a nice raise from the $495,000 he made last season. While his agent was negotiating his contract, Heisey was at home adding muscle and strength to become faster and more nimble defensively.
A Pennsylvania native and resident, Heisey has felt at home in Cincinnati and hopes his future keeps him there long term, regardless of his role. Fans have long clamored for him to play regularly, but will have to keep waiting for the time being.
"For me as a bench player, there are a lot of Chris Heisey fans in the area, which makes me feel wanted and liked," Heisey said. "I really appreciate that."