While much of the attention this spring has rightfully been dedicated to the injury storylines surrounding the Reds’ pitching staff — Homer Bailey’s elbow, John Lamb’s back, Michael Lorenzen’s elbow — and two key position players (Zack Cozart, Devin Mesoraco), Billy Hamilton’s recovery from offseason arthroscopic surgery on his right shoulder has been on the relative backburner.

Perhaps it’s because Hamilton was able to function as Cincinnati’s designated hitter in the club’s first game on March 2. And though Hamilton experienced soreness in his shoulder that forced him to take a near two-week hiatus between games and has limited the center fielder to just seven at-bats (and zero innings in the field), Hamilton is slated to make his first start of the spring in center later this afternoon when the Reds take on the Brewers.

The latest development is a dose of bad news for Jake Cave and any hope he may have harbored of unseating Hamilton in center field. Cave, a Rule 5 selection from the Yankees in December, has cooled off a bit from hot start, which saw him reach base six times through his first 10 spring at-bats.

Cave, who must stick on the Reds’ 25-man roster for the entire 2016 season or be returned to the Bronx Bombers for $25,000, has still posted respectable numbers this spring, logging a .267/.333/.400 slash in 39 at-bats with five runs, a pair of extra-base hits — including a mammoth home run last week against the Mariners — and a .733 OPS. Not great numbers, but not bad either. And if Hamilton suffers a setback can’t give it a go by Opening Day (which is 18 days away), there’s a chance Cave, who has never played in the majors and has only suited up in seven Triple-A games, could net the majority of the starts in center if Hamilton was forced to miss extended time. (Scott Schebler, who has center field experience, would certainly have something to say about that idea.)

But despite Cave’s cool Cal Ripken Jr. socks, his valid musings on Chipotle consumers, and the general good vibrations he’s given off this spring — aside from the Virginia native apparently leaving his jersey in Goodyear for Wednesday night’s game against the Diamondbacks — does he profile as that much of a different player than Hamilton? A look at the minor league numbers of each player.

Cave Hamilton
Age 23 years, 3 months 25 years, 6 months
Plate appearances 1,727 2,272
Slash line .285/.346/.391 .280/.351/.377
Walk rate 7.7% 9.9%
Strikeout rate 19.7% 20.5%

Surprisingly, Hamilton walked more than Cave has in the minors, and both players strike out too much for their own good. Cave and Hamilton are also regarded as base stealing threats and plus defenders, though Hamilton’s proven himself to be elite in both of those categories at the major league level. There is another attribute Cave (who bats left-handed) and Hamilton (a switch-hitter) have in common: neither player can hit left-handed pitching, a trend Patrick Jeter illustrated quite well last week.

Again, while Hamilton has endured his fair share of hitting struggles in the major leagues, he has at least proven himself to be a dynamo on the base paths and in center field. We don’t know what Cave can do because he has not been afforded the same big league opportunities as Hamilton. Cave has hit right-handers consistently well in the minors. (Again, as Patrick noted.) We’ll have to see if he can do the same in the majors. The Reds seem to think Cave is capable.

“We look at [Cave] as potentially a good guy to use against right-handed pitchers and then ease his way in,” said Reds assistant general manager Nick Krall. (MLB.com)

The Reds are going to take the long game with Hamilton, which is the appropriate course to pursue in this forthcoming season of rebuilding. As for Cave, he had a very small window to really distinguish himself this spring, and he needed Hamilton to hit a few more roadblocks in his recovery. And though Cave has played well, he hasn’t set Goodyear aflame, and Hamilton seems to be on the right path with his shoulder.

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32 Responses

  1. Patrick Jeter

    Good stuff, Grant. It’ll be quite interesting to see what happens with the Reds bench slots. There’s so much up in the air.

    One almost has to assume either Cave or Holt will get a slot to give Billy regular rest, unless Billy shows he’s 100% by opening day. Since Holt can be sent to AAA, I’d assume Cave might get a chance here.

    Even though I’d love to see Schebler try center field (he can’t be worse than Choo, right?) I doubt he’d get an opportunity. Schebler and Duvall are virtual locks to make the club, it would seem.

    Toss in the optionless Yorman Rodriguez and the oft-injured Hamilton and we’ve got ourselves a regular ‘ol pickle.

    • lwblogger2

      Schebler will probably cover more ground in CF than Choo but his arm is poor. I could see baserunners advancing at a prodigious rate. As bad as Choo was in CF, that didn’t happen on his watch.

      What to do with Yorman? That’s going to be the burning question.

  2. dan

    My bet is still going to be BHam starts opening day by going on the 60 Day DL and then rehabbing at AAA for a couple of weeks. That will then give us the use of Cave as we enter new era of being the AAA team for the Yankees. Cave will get sent back to the Yankees as soon as BHam finishes his rehab assignment.

    • lwblogger2

      I would think, barring a setback, Hamilton wouldn’t be that far away. Maybe the 15-day DL if he’s not ready for the season?

  3. WVRedlegs

    Pretty nice lineup going today vs. the BrewCrew. Getting closer to Opening Day.

    Billy Hamilton(S) CF
    Jose Peraza(R) 2B
    Joey Votto(L) 1B
    Jay Bruce(L) RF
    Adam Duvall(R) 3B
    Scott Schebler(L) LF
    Ivan De Jesus(R) SS
    Tucker Barnhart(S) C
    Anthony DeSclafani(R) P

  4. Daytonian

    Cave sticks, even though he is not good enough to be a starter. Who ever thought that he was at this stage of his career? This is a wasted season. All decisions have to point to the long term. Cave was picked for his long-term potential, not for short-term results. Simply put, you do not throw away the prospect of talent for the long-term in a season where we are not even close to a postseason possibility.

    It will be Holt (who has options), not Cave, who will be the odd man out. No other decision makes team-building baseball sense.

    • Patrick Jeter

      No other decision makes sense? There’s plenty of ways to justify just about any move with this current group of outfielders. Based on what I’ve seen and what I’ve researched, Cave appears to be the least talented of all the players in question. He’s also young, though, which is a mark in his favor.

      Playing him solely to avoid losing him, rather than giving his PT to someone more deserving doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense either. If the Reds think he can be a good player, maybe they stick with him. But to say rostering Cave is the only decision that makes sense seems a bit harsh.

  5. Tct

    Glad to see a little support for B-Ham. This site always preaches that the Reds need to get more analytical. But if you’re going by analytics then Hamilton is by far the Reds best choice for center field. Fangraphs has him at 6 wins already in less than 2 full years. The defensive metrics love him. The base running metrics love him.

    And yet, I keep seeing people wanting to send him to the bench or to Louisville in and start a guy who hasn’t played above AA yet in Cave. Or a guy who has been very dependent on a high walk rate for his offensive value in the minors but doesn’t have the power or the hit tool to force major league pitchers to consistently walk him in Holt.

    I’m not trying to be too critical here. I just feel like for all the talk about “more analytics”, the only analytic many people around here care about is OBP. No doubt it’s important, but it’s not the be all end all of player valuation.

    • Shchi Cossack

      TCT, I’m with you regarding Hamilton’s contributions. When Hamilton was promoted 2 years ago as the starter in CF and leadoff hitter, the Reds were in a narrow window of opportunity to win and WJ had carelessly boxed the team into a ‘best option available when no other option exists’ situation regarding Hamilton. That situation should have never existed, but it did exist, so Hamilton was promoted without ever proving capable of hitting even AAA pitching. If the Reds were in a similar position for 2016, Hamilton would again be the only and best option for CF.

      Getting 2-3 WAR from Hamilton for defensive excellence and unprecedented baserunning capability tops out his potential if he simply can’t hit or get on base. Could Hamilton ever hit major league pitching? We certainly don’t know and if the Reds continue with their mode of settling for limited success from a player (see Chapman, Aroldis), then we will never know.

      If Hamilton can finally finish his minor league development and provide better results at the plate, then we’re not looking at 2-3 WAR, but 4-5 WAR, and the Reds wasted 2 years, going on 3 years, with minimized potential. My argument is not against Hamilton, but against minimizing his contributions. For goodness sakes, let’s find out what Hamilton could really do if he finished his development in a proper environement and stop the foolishness after already losing 2 years. If it turns out that Hamilton is who he is and will never be an offesive force at the plate, then the Reds have lost nothing. They still have 4 years of 2-3 WAR contributions for his defensive excellence and unprecedented baserunning capability.

      Holt has proven his capability at AAA, but has not had any real opportunity to prove his capability at the major league level. Cave has not proven his capability at AAA, but that option is not available to the Reds, this season. He must stay on the 25-man roster or be lost. Having him simply ride the bench an squash any development during 2016 is pointless. Holts defense and baserunning contributions will not match Hamilton’s, but they will probably result in a league-average WAR contribution. What if Holt or Cave can produce at the major league level? What’s wrong with taking 3 months during 2016 to kick the tires and find out what’s under the hood while Hamilton works on his stroke and plate discipline at AAA?

      • Tct

        It’s a good point, Cossack and I understand what you are saying. Here’s my take; If the Reds and Billy want to end the silly switch hitting experiment and send him to Louisville for a few months to get used to hitting right handed all the time again and seeing right handed breaking balls from the right side, then I would be all for that.

        But if they are continuing to force Billy to hit from his unnatural side 2/3 of the time, then I’m not sure he could learn anything in Louisville about being a major league hitter.

    • Patrick Jeter

      I’ve never seen a writer on this site advocate for Hamilton being sent down. A lot of folks in the comments do, however.

      A 2-WAR floor player who will get tiny arb raises is a valuable asset.

      • vegastypo

        In fairness, the Cossack does some writing as well as commenting, and he has advocated for Hamilton getting sent down, but as he said above, it’s only to see if there isn’t more potential to be mined offensively, instead of wondering whether he’ll learn that at the major league level.

      • Patrick Jeter

        Very true. He sure does.

        To me it has always seemed there are 2 camps. One (that I’m in) that thinks there isn’t anything special or magical about AAA that helps someone learn to do something they aren’t very good at. If Billy Hamilton is capable of being a decent major league hitter, he can learn and prove that at the MLB level. Hitting AAA pitching still doesn’t show us anything about this skill at the MLB level.

        The other camp is well, about 100% opposite of that! 😉

      • greenmtred

        I’ve got to agree with Patrick: If the choice were between Billy riding the bench in Cincy or playing full-time in Louisville, my opinion would change, but I don’t see what he could learn there that he can’t learn in Cincy if he’s getting his at-bats.

      • VaRedsFan

        Excellent points Patrick. Billy need to play at MLB level.

  6. JAK

    Strap on your seat belts, because this year looks to be a ton of fun! When you consider where expectations will be (low), the theme for 2016 should be REDS SURPRISE!

    Consider more evidence:

    1. Extremely capable and talented veterans — just imagine if our veterans produce close to what they’re capable of (Votto, Bruce, Mesoraco, Phillips, Cozert, Bailey, Simon)…
    2. Fantastic young talent — most our youngsters (Hamilton, Schebler, Duvall, Paraza, Suarez, Iglesias, DeSclafani, Reed, Finnegan) are awesomely dynamic and will be at a very high level of competition, although also with the knowledge that the Reds are committed to getting younger — this will instill a sense of calm and inject a great dose of wild abandon. Fun!
    3. The clubhouse should be relaxed and with the mission of maximizing development — will facilitate veteran-youth relationships and the development of our young talent.

    Some wild cards:

    – How effectively the Reds achieve balance in applying Brandon Phillips’ skill and experience to support the team’s growth while honoring his past contributions and what he means to the team today.
    – Health of our veterans — nagging and sustained injuries have a way of dampening spirit.
    – Chemistry — will the players achieve it, or will the competition challenge it.

    Every successful team needs that one player who catalyzes team chemistry…makes me wonder which Red player will become that person in 2016.

    So maybe it’s just me, but 2016 is going to be a total blast — bring on April 4th!

    • sultanofswaff

      What about the giant elephant in the room (the bullpen)?

      I’m with you in that I think the team will be a good one by mid-season, but I worry the losses early on will pile up quickly.

    • Yippee

      A LOT has to go right in order for this team to be a surprise….would love to see it, though.

    • Fish

      If, by surprise, you mean more than 75 wins, I might be on board. If you mean winning season or contending for playoffs, I don’t see it.

      I’d set the starters around a 4 ERA average, maybe lower if Bailey comes back 100% healthy. I think the bullpen will bring this average up to around 4.25. That’d be around the bottom 1/3 of baseball.

      If you want to look at it from a WAR perspective, the reds had one of the worst records in baseball last year and lost 11.7 WAR worth of players (Frazier, Chapman, Cueto, & Leake). I just don’t see how they are going to not only make up for those lost wins, but exceed them.

      • Patrick Jeter

        Bruce and Mesoraco could make up 2/3 of that 11 WAR by having good seasons.

        I agree, it’s highly unlikely, but a 90th percentile projection could have the Reds as a .500 ball club.

    • JAK

      Agreed, REDS SURPRISE is certainly based on optimism. Yet, consider our mid-season form last year and what this year could be:

      2015 midseason (W39 – L47) (as of 7/13/2015; see Grantland article below)
      – C: No Mesoraco
      – SS: Early departed Cozart
      – CF: Woeful offense from BHam
      – LF: Abysmal LF offense
      – RF: Substandard Bruce offense
      – 1B: Solid Joey Votto offense
      – BP: Porous bullpen (minus Chapman)
      – SP, 1-2: A mere two veteran starters
      – SP, 3-5: Other three starters — complete rookies
      – 3B: Yes, berserk Todd Frasier numbers

      2016
      – C: Mesoraco returns (first AB shows promise for 2016 offensive figures)
      – SS: Cozart returns (with Paraza backing him up…potential 0.330-.350 OBP?)
      – CF: Have to believe BHam improves…or Paraza backs him up
      – LF: Liking very much how Duvall and Schebler stack up to last year
      – RF: Motivated veteran who’s working with Larkin now
      – 1B: Ditto…solid Joey Votto offense
      – BP: Enormous 2016 talent injection over last year
      – SP, 1-4: Likely starters with very high upside: Bailey, Desclafani, Iglesias…+ wildcard Simon (who knows what Price will be able to do with him again, plus Simon is back in the NL)
      – SP, 5: One rotation spot with likely complete rookie
      – 3B: Suarez won’t duplicate Frasier’s first half 2015, but he’ll provide more consistency over the entire season

      http://grantland.com/the-triangle/mlb-the-30-midseason-stock-report-pittsburgh-pirates/

    • Oklared

      What makes you think 1 year of minor league coaching and experience would provide more improvement than the previous two years or this years exposure to major league coaching/experience. I understand rushing him may have delayed or stunted his growth. I just think the time for minor league exposure has passed him by due to extensive major league exposure and coaching.

      I guess if they were going to eliminate switch hitting or work extensively/exclusively on bunting then I might see the point. It seems to prove nothing if he does well against lessor pitchers which he should. So I guess unless totally rebuilding swing I don’t get how minor leagues will help hit against major league pitchers, bunt more effectively, increase power or ground ball rate?

      • Oklared

        Sorry reply to Cossack on Hamilton

      • Shchi Cossack

        When a player is promoted beyond his training and experience to compete effectively, the natural inclination is to resort to utilization of what the player can do to compete. It has nothing to do with the coaching, it’s the level of competition while trying to learn and adjust. That’s why high school or even college players are not promoted to the upper minor leagues or even major league fresh out of the chute.

        Once the amount of new adjustments overwhelms the player’s ability to adjust, the learning stops and survival kicks in, to poor results. Hamilton has demonstrated the learning and adjustment curve with classic results during his minor league career. At every new level he struggled dramitically until his training and experience caught up with the level of competition and he was an excellent student. Then he got to AAA and the Reds never let his training and experience catch up before promoting him beyond AAA.

        It’s distinctly possible that Hamilton’s ability to compete topped out at the AAA level and no amount of experience and training will take him past that ability. But it’s also possible that if he was able to focus on smaller and fewer adjustments at AAA rather than being overwhelmed by major league competition, he might still have more in his capability tank than he is showing now or over the past 2 years.

        If the Reds believe that Hamilton can not compete at even the proverbial AAAA level, then nothing is really lost by letting him continue to struggle and fail offensively at the major league level. Persoanlly, I think Hamilton may have a shot at becoming a star and I would like to see him afforded the opportunity of maximizing his potential.

      • Carl Sayre

        I usually take the approach that if he is going to play everyday then he would be better served to bat against major league pitching. I have changed my mind about Hamilton for two reasons 1) they have tried the let him play and learn against the better pitching and it hasn’t worked 2) he wasn’t likely to being close to ready with a full ST. There are not many ball players who can miss over half of ST and be ready for the start of the season and Hamilton for sure is not one of them. I agree he needs to have every chance to develop his hitting because of his defense and base stealing. Does anybody else question his attitude? I mean you would have to think coaches have told him to quit trying to loft the ball and level his swing out. Where would a man that small in stature develop such a poor swing, he swings like he is a HR hitter.

  7. WVRedlegs

    It is a shame that Jake Cave can’t be optioned to the Louisville Bats. Somewhere in there is a Bat Cave promotion.

    • lwblogger2

      Oh man! That’s pretty epic! My nerd is showing even more than usual.

  8. Scott Carter

    I can’t see keeping two very similar players, particularly those with poor walk rates and low OBP and virtually no power. In fact the only positives are Hamilton’s defense and base stealing ability. As for the others, it is quite a dilemma as to what to do and I know Yorman has not had a great spring but I am wondering, “Is he traditionally a slow starter” He seemed to have figured it out last year until he got hurt. I would hate to see the Reds give up on him and he turns around to be a great player. My thought would send down those with options and give him a month or two to figure it out. They have already given up on the season, what could it hurt.

  9. ohiojimw

    I think they create a way to hang on to Cave for least a couple of months for the same reason they chose him in the Rule 5 Draft….. The jury is still out on the health of Hamilton’s shoulder.

    Maybe the Reds bite the bullet and just carry him on the 25 man or maybe they work something out with the Yanks to buy out their rights to take him back then send him down to the minors. In the the global scheme of things, we are probably talking only slightly over paying for Cave in return talent in exchange for owning his rights free and clear. Perhaps the Reds propose a de facto epilog to the Chapman deal by offering the Yanks their choice of anybody, except Davis, who came over in that deal.