CINCINNATI -- As much as the Reds want to be in the game to re-sign free agent Shin-Soo Choo as their leadoff hitter and center fielder, the size and scope of the contract he is reportedly seeking makes that goal increasingly unrealistic.
An alternate, and not-so-secret, backup plan to Choo is having top prospect Billy Hamilton take over -- but only if he is ready.
After a full season at Triple-A Louisville and a much-heralded first-time September callup to the big leagues with the Reds this year, Hamilton began playing winter ball last week in Puerto Rico.
"We sent him down there just to get more at-bats and work more on his offense," Reds general manager Walt Jocketty said.
Playing for Santurce in Puerto Rico, Hamilton is batting .205 (9-for-44) with a .286 on-base percentage, five walks and nine strikeouts in 10 games through Wednesday. He is 6-for-6 in steal attempts.
Hamilton, 23, has been groomed for 2014 since being moved from shortstop to center field one year ago at the Arizona Fall League. Cincinnati would prefer to have Choo back, or perhaps another veteran, so it could bring Hamilton along a little slower and with less pressure. But they might not have that luxury.
During his September in Cincinnati, Hamilton and his speed immediately electrified. On the bases, especially when installed as a pinch-runner in the late innings, he had the ability to change a game quickly.
Hamilton stole 13 bases in 14 attempts and scored two game-winning runs, a go-ahead run in extra innings and a game-tying run.
Albeit a small sample size of seven games and three starts, Hamilton looked comfortable patrolling center field and made no obvious mistakes.
For the Reds to be fully comfortable with making Hamilton a regular fixture in their lineup, especially at the leadoff spot, Hamilton will have to prove that he can hit big league pitching consistently. Otherwise, they won't be able to maximize his gift of speed.
In his 13 big league games, Hamilton did bat .368 with two doubles and a .429 on-base percentage. For two of his starts, he had three-hit games. But he was also given favorable matchups by then-manager Dusty Baker. One of Hamilton's three-hit starts came against the talent-depleted Astros on Sept. 18. Another included a bunt single and an infield hit vs. the Pirates on Sept. 22.
During his 123 games for Louisville, Hamilton batted .256 with only a .308 on-base percentage. His first big league camp at Spring Training before that was a struggle -- a .192 average with nine strikeouts in 26 at-bats over 13 games.
If there is reason for optimism, it's that Hamilton has eventually shown offensive improvement at every level he's played on the way -- after getting the chance to become comfortable. Following a slow start to the first half in Louisville, he was much more productive in the second half.
Hamilton will be given a chance to compete for a starting job when the Reds arrive at Goodyear, Ariz., for Spring Training, In the meantime, don't be shocked if the club -- still taking a win-now approach after disappointing in the postseason each of the last two years -- pursues a veteran center fielder as insurance if Hamilton isn't ready to start on Opening Day.
"Billy will continue to get better and better," Jocketty told MLB.com's Richard Justice on Wednesday. "He can do so many things. He's a great athlete. He's a great center fielder. He's good at baserunning and basestealing. I just think there's a number of things he'll be able to do to help us. It depends on how quickly the bat comes."
Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Mark My Word, and follow him on Twitter @m_sheldon.