Wednesday, March 31, 1999

Center field up in the air


Hammonds' hot bat forces a race

BY JOHN FAY
The Cincinnati Enquirer

hammonds
Jeffrey Hammonds
cameron
Mike Cameron
        SARASOTA, Fla. — The Reds' starting eight, pretty much set a week ago, is suddenly subject to change.

        Jeffrey Hammonds' hot bat is the reason.

        Hammonds is on a tear as spring training nears its end. He has a 10-game hitting streak in which he has hit .448 with four home runs and 13 RBI. He hit two long home runs and drove in five runs for his best day of the spring at the plate Monday and was 1-for-1 Tuesday.

        “If Hammonds keeps going like that, it's going to be hard to keep him out of the lineup,” Reds manager Jack McKeon said.

        To put Hammonds into the lineup, McKeon would have to take Mike Cameron out.

        But Cameron is the Opening Day center fielder, right?

        “I don't know,” McKeon said. “A week ago, I would have said yes.”

        The switch won't be on a whim, because Cameron gives the Reds the defense in center field they lacked a year ago.

        “There's no question that he's one of the better guys we've ever had out there,” McKeon said.

        It comes down to a classic defense-vs.-offense question.

        “Cameron gives you better defense,” McKeon said. “His offense is OK, and he gives you a lot of speed. But Hammonds is going to give you more offense.”

        Both are right-handed hitters, so there's no chance of a platoon situation. And with Greg Vaughn in left and Dmitri Young in right, center is the only position where major playing time is available.

        It's a nice problem to have.

        “We've got competition, which is good,” McKeon said.

        Hammonds, 27, came from Baltimore in a trade for Willie Greene last Aug. 10, hitting .302 in 26 games with the Reds before a bad left wrist ended his season Sept. 10.

        “They knew my wrist was bad when I came from Baltimore,” Hammonds said. “I played well with the wrist. But I knew I needed to come to spring training healthy this year.”

        He has been, and it shows. He's hitting .379 with a .469 on-base percentage. And he's comfortable in the leadoff spot.

        “I hit leadoff my whole career before I got to Baltimore,” he said.

        “I'm more comfortable there. But it wasn't an issue that I walked up to Jack (McKeon) and Jim (Bowden) and asked them about.”

        Hammonds looks at leading off like this: “It's your job to create something, and you've got to set the attitude for the team. Let the other team know what this ballclub is about.”

        Hammonds is one of the young, talented players the Reds have acquired over the last two years in hopes they reach their potential. He was a three-time All-American at Stanford and the fourth overall pick in the draft in 1992.

        He got his first taste of the big leagues a year later, hitting .305 after his call-up to Baltimore and .296 in 69 games in 1994.

        He has been troubled by injuries since, and his batting average has reflected it. He hit .242 in '95, .227 in '96 and .264 in '97. He did hit 21 home runs and drove in 55 runs in 397 at-bats in '97.

        He isn't surprised to be getting the chance McKeon's giving him.

        “They traded Willie Greene, who was a big part of this club, to get me,” he said. “Competition is what spring training is all about.”

        Cameron, 26, is another player the Reds paid a good price to obtain. They traded Paul Konerko to the Chicago White Sox Nov. 11 to get him.

        Cameron is the perfect center fielder to have between Vaughn and Young because of the ground he covers. But his numbers don't look like that of a leadoff hitter.

        He hit .210 last with the White Sox and struck out 101 times. The year before, he hit .259 and struck out 105 times.

        He has had a decent spring — .282, two homers, six RBI, a team-high five stolen bases — but his on-base percentage is more than 120 points lower than Hammonds.

        But he is getting used to the leadoff role.

        “I've adjusted,” he said. “You try to get on any way you can. But you have to play the game like you always have. I'm not a person who takes a lot of pitches.”

        Cameron knows his defense is what has given him the lead in the race for playing time.

        “That's my trademark,” he said. “It's enabled me to get this far. I look like at it like if I can't get a hit, I'm not going to let the other team get any either.”

        Cameron says the competition is expected.

        “We compete every day,” he said. “You're not only competing with the guys on the team but the guys below you in the minors.”

       



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