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Reds giving Hamilton a shot to start in center

Outfielder has just 22 big league plate appearances, but he has game-changing speed @RichardJustice

PEORIA, Ariz. -- Here's some advice for those of us who think Reds rookie center fielder Billy Hamilton might be the most thrilling thing in baseball this season. Take a deep breath.

Got that?

OK, now take another.

"Exactly," Reds first baseman Joey Votto said.

He means there's a lot being thrown at this 23-year-old kid in a short amount of time. Hamilton is two years removed from playing in Class A. And like virtually every other young player on earth, patience will be required.

On the other hand. …

"He can potentially be an awesome part of this team for a long time," Votto said. "I'm excited for his potential in center field. I'm excited for his potential on the bases.

"I hope he embraces what was a strong suit of his in the Minor Leagues, which was getting on base. I hope he realizes how important it is to be a well-rounded hitter and the benefit of taking the walk. He has a track record of that."

It's virtually impossible to be realistic about any of this, because Hamilton is so unique, so fascinating. He brings an element of speed to the game that baseball has seldom seen. Not just speed, but world-class, game-changing, you'll-buy-a-ticket-when-he-comes-to-your-town speed.

It has been on display already. In Hamilton's first at-bat of the spring, he fouled off three straight full-count pitches before drawing a walk. He promptly stole second and went to third when the catcher threw the ball into center field.

In his second start, Hamilton beat out an infield grounder and ended up on third thanks to a throwing error. Those two at-bats were a reminder that speed disrupts pitchers, fielders, etc.

Hamilton doubled in three at-bats, scored two runs and drove in one on Sunday against the Padres. He's hitting .286 after three starts. Perhaps Hamilton's most impressive at-bat on Sunday was a nine-pitch battle that ended with a grounder to first in in the first inning.

"We just want to see the fight in him," Cincinnati manager Bryan Price said. "We've seen that. Pitchers have attacked him, and he has been able to grind out at-bats. I've never seen him overwhelmed."

There's no question Hamilton will be an impact weapon in center field. As for everything else, there's simply no way of knowing. He was a .280 hitter in the Minors, but that means nothing. As for everything else, check out the track record:

• Hamilton stole 155 bases in the Minor Leagues in 2012, the most in the history of professional baseball.

• Hamilton stole 75 more in 2013.

• In four Minor League seasons, Hamilton has led five leagues in steals.

• In seven games as a pinch-runner for the Reds late last season, Hamilton scored the winning run twice, the tying run once and also scored an extra-inning go-ahead run.

• Hamilton stole 13 bases in the big leagues last season and was thrown out once -- that coming on his 14th attempt.

"[Hamilton's play on the bases] brought life to our club and our fans," Price said. "He was a difference-maker. He scored a lot of important runs in September."

Hamilton got the crowd buzzing the moment he stepped from the dugout and trotted toward first base. At that point, everyone in the ballpark knew what was about to happen.

"It was amazing," Hamilton said. "Some people say they don't hear the crowd. You have no choice. They're right there. It was loud. It was exciting.

"I got on base the first time and looked around, and people had cell phones out taking video. I was like, 'This is what the big leagues are like.' It made me want to make a good impression."

In that brief time, Hamilton showed he was completely fearless and that he could change games with his speed alone. There's so much more to being a complete player, but he's beginning with a dazzling skill.

"I feel like I can steal anytime I want to," he said.

Hamilton said this without a touch of arrogance. He's aware that there's so much more to being the player he wants to be, but he understands his gift.

"You try not to be influenced by speed as a pitcher," Price said. "You want to be committed to executing the pitch. But there's no question about it -- that type of speed is going to affect pitchers on the mound. If they're not quicker to the plate, he'll steal second and third. If they are quicker to the plate, if they feel rushed, that may create more opportunities for our hitters to get good pitches to hit.

"There's anxiety that goes with speed. You feel it in our dugout when we've got guys on that are trying to steal against us. The whole 'Juan Pierre effect' from years gone by. [Pierre] was going to go. It was just a matter of when. He was going to drive you nuts."

Hamilton started only three games for Cincinnati in September, and he had three-hit days in two of them. He finished with a .368 batting average and a .429 on-base percentage in 22 plate appearances. Hamilton had a tougher time in winter ball, hitting .227 in 17 games for Santurce in Puerto Rico.

Reds general manager Walt Jocketty gave Hamilton the first crack to win the job in center field after last season's leadoff hitter, Shin-Soo Choo, signed with the Rangers. Hamilton jumped on the opportunity, reporting to Spring Training in January and working on his game with Eric Davis, Delino DeShields and Billy Hatcher.

"For them to be here to help me out is a blessing," Hamilton said. "I grew up watching those guys. I've learned so much being around them. This is when you want to take in as much as you can. I'm trying to learn from these guys who've been in the game a long time."

Are the Reds rushing Hamilton? Sure they are. Big deal. Isn't that what the Orioles did with Manny Machado two years ago, and the Pirates did with Starling Marte that same summer?

Teams have have discovered that gifted young players can survive when they're challenged. They're good enough to contribute right away and then continue their learning curve.

But nothing is automatic. Mike Trout had a terrible time of it in his first taste of the big leagues.

Anyway, Cincinnati is going to give it a try.

"We might be selling Billy short in what he's able to do offensively," Price said. "We don't know yet. I think that's what we're talking about here. What is he ready to do?

"I think what he's ready to do is take the opportunity and show us what he's capable of doing. I'm looking forward to seeing him evolve based on how he's being pitched and how he makes those adjustments.

"I know I'm excited about what he provides us defensively in the outfield, that type of speed. I'm really pleased with that. It'll help us quite a bit. The offense is always going to be evolving."

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U.

Cincinnati Reds, Billy Hamilton