Speeding to the majors?

Billy Hamilton will get a chance to claim the Reds lead-off spot this Spring.

While most baseball players drink Powerade, Gatorade or plain ol' water, some people believe Billy Hamilton drinks jet fuel.

How else can a human being run from home plate to first base in 3.2 seconds? It's the time a scout swears he clocked Hamilton from home to first in a game last season in Pensacola, Fla.

How else can a human being run from first base to second base in 2.8 seconds while stealing one of the 155 bases Hamilton stole last season at Class A Bakersfield and Class AA Pensacola?

The scout who registered that reading said he was going to have his radar gun checked until a scout seated next to him showed him his gun and it read 00:02.08.

For years and years the Cincinnati Reds have searched for a prototypical leadoff hitter and it appears they have one in 22-year-old Billy Hamilton, their No. 2 draft pick out of Taylorsville, Miss. in 2009.

But how soon? Will it be 2013?

In four minor-league seasons, Hamilton has stolen 320 bases and has been caught 69 times, an 82 percent success ratio.

Even though the opposition knew he could and would do it, Hamilton often beat out a bunt, then stole second on the next pitch and stole third on the pitch after that.

And while splitting time last year between Class A and Class AA, he walked 86 times and had a .411 on base average.

Is it any wonder that Reds fans were screaming and demanding that Hamilton be called up in September to fill the one vast void the Reds had.

They need a leadoff hitter. Desperately. Manager Dusty Baker used seven different players at the leadoff spot last year, none successfully. Cincinnati leadoff hitters batted .208 with a .254 on base average — both worst in the majors.

Wouldn't Hamilton fill that void?

The same scout who nearly didn't believe his radar gun also said, "Hamilton is going to be a great player, but he isn't ready yet. He has a lot to learn about the nuances of the game."

But the clamor for Hamilton was so high-pitched in Cincinnati that general manager Walt Jocketty flew to Pensacola for a face-to-face with Hamilton to tell him why he wasn't going to make it to Cincinnati in 2012.

It was because Hamilton is changing positions. He signed as a shortstop but made 89 errors in his four minor-league seasons — 39 at low Class A Dayton in 2011 and 31 at high Class A Bakersfield and Class AA Pensacola this year.

That, though, didn't stop him from showing his speed on defense. There was a play in Dayton when the left fielder lost a very high and very deep fly ball in the sun and was flailing his arms in frustration and desperation. Seeing that, Hamilton sprinted to the outfield and caught the ball — at the start of the warning track in front of the wall with his back to the infield.

But the Reds are moving him from shortstop to center field. He played it after this season in the Arizona Instructional League and in the Arizona Fall League.

The Reds plan to take a long, hard look at Hamilton in spring training, even though he has played only 55 games at Class AA and even a jump to Triple-A might be a giant step.

There is something, though, that might fuel the Reds to take the chance. Both Rookies of the Year this year, Bryce Harper of the Washington Nationals and Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels, are younger than Hamilton.

Hamilton only hit .233 in the Arizona Fall League but was invited to play in the Rising Stars AFL All-Star game where he had a bunt hit, a stolen base and made a diving catch.

"We know he has a chance to be an exciting leadoff hitter and to steal a lot of bases for us," said Jocketty. "He creates havoc on the basepaths and all he needs is time and experience."

The fans say the time was yesterday, but Jocketty likes the Paul Masson approach: "No wine before its time." But Hamilton gets the opportunity this spring to show if it is, indeed, his time.

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