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MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Reds hoping speedy Hamilton has spring in his bat

We'll soon learn if center fielder can get on base often enough to play every day

Reds hoping speedy Hamilton has spring in his bat

Raise your hand if you think Billy Hamilton will be the best story of Spring Training. Who doesn't love speed, especially game-changing, take-your-breath-away speed? That's why we already love Billy Hamilton.

In his past three Minor League seasons, he stole 103, 155 and 75 bases. When he was promoted to the big leagues for a September cameo appearance in 2013, he became a tremendous late-game weapon for the Reds.

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The 23-year-old switch-hitter appeared in 13 games, seven of them as a pinch-runner. He stole 13 bases in 14 attempts and scored two game-winning runs, a game-tying run and the go-ahead run in an extra-inning game.

Even when everyone in the ballpark knew he was running, he was practically unstoppable. There was a buzz the moment he stepped from the dugout at Great American Ball Park.

Reds closer Aroldis Chapman generates the same kind of reaction, so strictly in terms of buzz factor, Cincinnati may lead the Majors.

Back to Hamilton. It's easy to get excited because we just haven't seen many players like him, and so there's going to be a mad dash to use words like "electric" and "dazzling" and "breathtaking." I will finish second to no one in this little competition.

First, there's the obvious question. It's not the only one, but it's certainly the first one Hamilton and the Reds will try to answer this spring. Actually, it's such a small matter that I don't even know why I'm bringing it up except you know how some people worry about every little thing.

OK, here goes ...

Is he ready for the big leagues? Gulp. Yes, there's that. With every young player, there's always the larger question of whether he's good enough to be a big leaguer. That is, when all is said and done, can he play at the highest level for a long period of time?

With Hamilton, there's no question he'll play in the big leagues. He proved last summer that he can impact winning by doing the one thing he does better than anyone. What the Reds don't know is whether he'll be more than a specialist. They know he's capable of being a weapon, but they're hopeful of so much more.

That question may not be answered this season or even next season. Hamilton is all of 23 years old and has played a total of 502 Minor League games. In other words, he's just getting started.

But if he hits the ball on the ground consistently, if he uses the bunt as a weapon, he has a chance. The Reds feel fairly confident he'll do a nice job in center field, so this spring will be about getting to a comfort level in assessing whether his strengths can overcome his potential weaknesses at the plate.

In terms of his overall game, he probably isn't big league ready, but the same could have been said for Mike Trout, Manny Machado, Starling Marte and other young players the past two years. If the talent is there -- and the Reds believe it is -- the Reds hope he can survive in his rookie season and gradually develop in all areas.

Hamilton hit .256 at Triple-A Louisville and .227 in 17 winter-ball games last year. If he were a normal player, he'd ticketed back to Triple-A, and there's a chance that's where he'll end up if he looks overmatched in Spring Training.

Reds general manager Walt Jocketty signed veteran Skip Schumaker, who has played 141 of his 935 big league games in center field, to provide insurance at several positions. Chris Heisey could also be in the mix if Hamilton isn't ready.

But the spring will be about assessing whether Hamilton can take the next step in his career. If he can, the Reds will have one of the most unique weapons in the sport.

As a 20-year-old shortstop, Hamilton stole 103 bases for Class A Dayton in 2011. That number got everyone's attention.

Almost everyone in baseball wanted to get a look at him. And the people who have seen him -- scouts, instructors, executives -- have no real comparable player to describe the things he does well.

Two years ago, after Hamilton stole 155 bases, Jocketty very nearly brought him to the big leagues to help the club out in September. Instead, he was asked to focus on switching from shortstop to center field.

He has made that adjustment successfully, and so the Reds are ready to find out what else he can do. They don't expect him to replace Shin-Soo Choo's .423 on-base percentage, but they've got high expectations of him playing center field every day and getting on base enough to become a different kind of winning player. Spring Training was invented for story lines like this one.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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