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Speedster Hamilton adjusts to outfield in AFL

CINCINNATI -- Billy Hamilton thinks fast, talks fast and as someone who stole a professional baseball record 155 bases in 2012, he certainly moves very fast.

This offseason however, the Reds top Minor League prospect will have to slow down -- just for a little while to fully soak in the transition he's making from shortstop to center field. It began in earnest over the past few weeks.

"It's been going pretty good lately. I've been doing a lot of work," Hamilton told by phone on Saturday shortly before an Arizona Fall League game with his Peoria Javelinas club. "I feel like it's going to be good as long as I get it down. I still have a lot of work left to do."

Hamilton, 22, has the range and rifle arm that would have likely made him a strong shortstop in the big leagues. Although he had 25 errors in 2012, down from 31 in '11, he was often able to make spectacular plays.

Shortstop is one of the most important positions on the field, and it is also one of the more physically taxing. And with Hamilton's tendency for stealing and running in mind, the Reds decided to make the change.

"If you watch Hamilton's style of play, it's a pounding style of play," said Bill Bavasi, the Reds vice president of scouting and player development. "[Center field] would be an easier position for his body to take along with the base stealing. Everything seems to work better."

The Reds also have two young shortstops developmentally ahead of Hamilton. Zack Cozart played his first full season in the Majors and impressed the club in both aspects of the game, and Didi Gregorius -- a September callup -- has wowed the organization with his defense. Gregorius is also in the fall league.

No matter the position in the field, Hamilton's biggest eventual impact for the Reds should be as the lineup's leadoff hitter. Aside from those 155 steals in 192 attempts combined for Class A Bakersfield and Double-A Pensacola, he batted .311 with a .410 on-base percentage in 132 games, and he scored 112 runs.

The Reds have long had instability at the leadoff spot, but they don't view Hamilton as their quick fix to start 2013 in the Majors. He will likely begin either at Double-A or Triple-A Louisville.

"I feel like I'm getting close," Hamilton said. "It'd be a good thing if I got there next year, but I'm not going to be in a rush. I will work hard.

"The Reds know what they want. If I'm there next year, I will be happy. If not, I will still work hard to get there."

Before starting play in the AFL, Hamilton began learning the outfield in the organization's instructional league. He was under the tutelage of former Reds center field great Eric Davis, now a special assistant to the general manager, and Minor League outfielder coordinator Darren Bragg.

"I trust them and appreciate them getting me ready," Hamilton said.

It didn't take long for Hamilton to make his mark defensively. In his second game for Peoria, he got his first assist from center field by throwing out a runner advancing to third base.

But there will be more adjustments needed as Hamilton learns his way in center field.

"People say the outfield is easy, but once you get out there, you've got to know the hitters, how much power they've got and the angle of the bat when the ball comes off of it," Hamilton said. "It's been a little hard."

Through six AFL games, Hamilton is batting .300 (6-for-20) with a .391 on-base percentage.

Hamilton was offered the chance to keep playing after AFL wraps up next month, but turned down playing winter ball in Puerto Rico. He only took two weeks off between the end of Pensacola's season and heading to the Reds complex for instructional league.

"I don't think I'm going to do that after a long season," Hamilton said. "I will relax a little bit and get back into it."

By Spring Training, the Reds brass will be able to see how far Hamilton has come as a center fielder. It was a process that quietly began during this past season. Orders from the organization had Hamilton taking fly balls in center field during batting practice to get used to seeing balls coming off of the bat.

It's partly why there was no surprise when the position switch was made.

"I knew it would happen sometime soon, but when they told me, I was like, 'It's time now,'" Hamilton said. "Whatever gets me to the big leagues, I'm down with it."

Cincinnati Reds, Billy Hamilton