Billy Hamilton was scratched from the Reds' starting lineup on Saturday after jamming his left middle finger sliding into second base during Friday night's game in New York. Whether that was truly the reason, manager Bryan Price was looking for an excuse to bench the 0-for-12 center fielder or it was a combination of the two, Hamilton has not looked good out of the gate this year.
Bleacher Report's Tyler Grote wrote on Friday that Hamilton is in a poor position to succeed in Cincinnati because he's going through growing pains on a playoff-contending team that can't afford to have him struggle as its leadoff hitter. I agree with that sentiment, but what the Reds should do with Hamilton for the long run (keep him, trade him, etc.) is a discussion for another day.
The problem for the Reds at this point in time is if they're not going to let Hamilton go through his growing pains and he continues to struggle, they'll need a center fielder. Roger Bernadina and Chris Heisey, the other center fielders on Cincinnati's roster, are both quality big leaguers but probably won't offer the offensive production the Reds would like at the top of their lineup over the course of a full season.
Because it's still just April 5, every team is still mathematically in contention, and thus there aren't really any quality center fielders available on the trade market for less than an absurd asking price. But looking down the line, there's one trade option that could certainly be a fit.
The Houston Astros, despite their improved roster this season, don't figure to compete in 2014 with several of their young talents still developing. But while the Astros' roster may not be ready to go out and claim a playoff spot, the team did go out this offseason and acquire talented center fielder Dexter Fowler from the Colorado Rockies in exchange for young starter Jordan Lyles and outfielder Brandon Barnes.
Houston managed to get a top-tier center fielder in the deal for a fairly low asking price, but at age 28 with two years of team control remaining, it appears Fowler won't fit into the Astros' long-term plans unless he signs an extension beyond the 2015 season. So while Fowler will make the lineup better for the time being, the Astros are in a position where they risk seeing Fowler walk in the 2015-16 offseason for little to no compensation.
Since he's not a face of the franchise and the team is still a fringe contender at peak performance, it's not essential to keep him around in Houston for the length of the contract. But he's surely a great table setter for a lineup that already has Joey Votto, Jay Bruce and Brandon Phillips.
While Fowler may not beat Hamilton head to head in a 40-yard dash, he still has more than enough speed to be an effective base stealer at the top of the Reds' lineup. And while his .263 average and .369 on-base percentage pale in comparison to the .285 average and .424 on-base percentage of Shin-Soo Choo (the Reds' leadoff hitter in 2013), Fowler still proved he was one of the better leadoff hitters in baseball last year, and has also shown the ability to draw walks out of the one spot, averaging 65 free passes per year since 2009.
With Robbie Grossman and L.J. Hoes already in the big leagues and George Springer, Delino DeShields Jr. and Domingo Santana all knocking on the door, the Astros already figure to have an outfield crowded with talent in the coming years. So while dealing a player they just dealt for in the offseason may seem somewhat unlikely, general manager Jeff Luhnow is as intelligent as they come in MLB front offices, and probably understands it'd be wise to deal Fowler now in favor of some younger players that will be ready for the big leagues when the Astros are competing in the next few years.
While Houston's farm system is plenty deep, rebuilding teams can always use more prospects in the event that multiple young players don't reach their potential in the major leagues. And because the Astros have a very well-rounded farm system filled with lots of young pitching as well as promising players at every defensive position, they have the luxury of going after the best prospects available at any position since they don't have any obvious needs.
Because Fowler is under team control through next season, he's more valuable than your average trade deadline player. If he were a free agent at the end of the season, it'd probably be unreasonable on the part of Luhnow and the Astros to ask for top prospects in return, but because of his multi-year contract, Houston may actually have the leverage to go after top Reds pitching prospect Robert Stephenson in a deal.
Fowler isn't a star, so Luhnow would have to make the decision of quality or quantity because unless Fowler has a statistically spectacular May and June, he can't ask for both. The Astros likely wouldn't get much more in addition to Stephenson in a deal, but if Luhnow elected to go for quantity, something along the lines of Michael David Holmberg, Ismael Guillon and Tucker Barnhart would certainly be a quality and plausible haul for the Houston farm system.
When the trade deadline rolls around, there's always talk of which teams match up best to deal for a certain player, and these two teams seem like a match made in heaven. Two years ago, the deal would've been highly improbable because Houston was still in the NL Central, but now, if the Astros are going to deal Fowler, it actually makes sense to deal him to Cincinnati to get him out of the American League. The deal also gives Houston an opportunity to bring in some attractive pieces from the Reds' deep farm system.
On the Reds' end, it all goes back to Hamilton. He has the potential to be one of the most exciting players in baseball, but he has to start getting on base. Perhaps I'm overreacting, which, if Hamilton succeeds, I'll concede.
But right now he doesn't seem to be in a position to do that in Cincinnati because if he continues to go through growing pains, that'll likely punch his ticket to the bench or back to Triple-A. In that scenario, the Reds will need to go outside the organization to find a new center fielder if they want to compete and as of now, there doesn't seem to be a much better fit than Fowler.