Hamilton hoping to show versatility
JUPITER, Fla. – While most of his friends and teammates were partying and celebrating a World Series title that he played a small part in helping them win, Mark Hamilton spent his winter roaming the outfields of Latin America.
Hamilton has been almost exclusively a first baseman since the Cardinals made him a second round supplemental pick out of Tulane University in 2006.
But with Lance Berkman manning first base in 2012, Allen Craig showing he's a future option there and slugging first base prospect Matt Adams expected to continue his ascend at Triple-A Memphis, Hamilton quickly realized first base might not be his ticket to staying in the big leagues.
So after brief outfield appearances the past couple of seasons, the 6-4, 220-pound Hamilton decided to take the new position more seriously this past offseason.
"If your competing for one of the last spots on the team and I think I'm in that type of situation, your versatility comes into play," Hamilton said. "Obviously they are looking for guys that can play more than one position. The big thing with outfield is getting reps.
"It's one of those things where you get comfortable by playing and I got about 70-80 games this year in the outfield between Mexico and the Dominican. I'm definitely feeling more comfortable out there and I think its something I can do and contribute."
Hamilton made a couple of brief appearances in the outfield last spring and played two innings in the outfield with the Cardinals last year. He played three games in the outfield with Triple-A Memphis, spending the majority of his time at first base.
But hoping to become more familiar with the position – and show the Cardinals that he was serious about wanting to improve – Hamilton played the outfield in both the Dominican and Mexico Winter Leagues.
He played a combined 46 games between the two leagues, working almost entirely in left and right field as he looked to improve his comfort level.
"For a guy who is in a different role or spent time up in the big league or wasn't playing much, to go and get that extra experience shows a couple things," said manager Mike Matheny. "One, you're getting better and two, it shows the organization that your willing to do the sacrifices to do so. It's certainly a feather in his cap for going."
Hamilton continues to take ground balls at first base with the rest of the infielders and still calls first base his primary position. But that could soon change with the window quickly closing at first base in St. Louis.
The slugger is eligible to be a minor league free agent after the season, meaning he could either stick with the big league club in St. Louis or look for a better opportunity with another organization in need for a power-hitting first baseman or outfielder.
But for now, he's focused on spending as much time in the outfield as possible, hoping to show Matheny and the Cardinals that he could be of use to the big league club in other areas.
"I spoke to Mike and he told me to get reps in the outfield," Hamilton said. "I had expressed that it was something I had interest in doing and he asked me how I felt out there. It's something where I'm just trying to get reps off the bat every day during batting practice out in the outfield.
"I still have to take some groundballs but any chance I get to maybe catch some extra fly balls off the machine, I'm definitely out there working."
Hamilton had a weird year offensively, hitting just two home runs in 107 games between Triple-A and the big league club. He appeared in 38 games for the Cardinals, hitting .213 with three extra-base hits in 47 at-bats.
His infield single in the bottom of the eighth on July 4 scored the only run of the game in a 1-0 win over the Cincinnati Reds.
The lack of power from the power hitter is surprising, but Hamilton hopes to return to his normal numbers this year. The Cardinals could use a power-hitter off the bench such as Hamilton, if he can show improvement with his pinch-hitting.
"It's definitely one of those things where the more you get to do it, the better you get at it, and last year I definitely got some exposure as a pinch-hitter," Hamilton said. "It's definitely a difficult role. It's a role where guys that can do it real well tend to sit around the league forever. "
Hamilton is likely competing with Alex Cora, Adron Chambers, Matt Carpenter, and Eric Komatsu for two spots on the bench. None of the other four are considered power bats, giving Hamilton a potential leg up this spring if he can prove his swing has returned.
He's got work to do both offensively and defensively to prove his worth. But after two months in Latin America and a couple extra weeks in Jupiter before camp opened, Hamilton hopes to show the Cardinals he deserves a spot.
"He's a power bat," Matheny said. "Last year I know he didn't quite have the kind of season he wanted to power wise, but we've all seen it and we know that he does have the ability to hit the ball hard so getting him the at-bats and getting him exposure to different parts of the field will certainly play into his role.
"He's been working hard, he's been very conscientious to say, ‘Where can I get more work in? Where do you think I can get more opportunities in the spring?' He's been very up front and aggressive in trying to figure that out and realizing that he's had a couple tastes here in the big leagues and he knows he wants to stay and has to do whatever he can to try and figure out how to fit in this club."
Whether that be at first base or in the outfield.