Jayson Stark
Spring Training '01
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Tuesday, March 13
The Stark Report

Note: Jayson Stark will be filing his Stark Report throughout spring training.

March 12: Hamilton at the center of Devil Rays' universe
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – The best prospect in baseball isn't hitting .400 this spring. In fact, he isn't even hitting .200 (he was at .176 – 3 for 17 – through Monday).

But there is something in the way Josh Hamilton moves, something in the things about baseball he seems to sense innately, something in the way he conducts himself that is making life very difficult for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

There is no reason to keep a 19-year-old phenom on your Opening-Day roster – particularly when he plays the same position (center field) as your team MVP last year (Gerald Williams). But the Devil Rays keep finding themselves thinking about it.

Asked how seriously he is considering this possibility, manager Larry Rothschild says: "Well, I've been asked a lot of serious questions about it – and I've answered them.

"Is it realistic? Well, it's realistic in a sense where this is a kid with very good talent who knows how to play the game. What he's got to learn (is something) we're finding out this spring. If we think he can learn it here and still produce and help us win games, then that's a pretty good combination. That's what you look for. But if that looks like it's not going to be the case when we get down the road here in spring, then he needs to go out and play."

On one hand, Hamilton still hasn't played a real game above A-ball. On the other, just 21 months ago, he was the first high school player since A-Rod to be taken with the No. 1 pick in the entire amateur draft.

In 699 minor-league at-bats since, Hamilton already has churned out 23 homers, 116 RBI, 46 doubles, 32 stolen bases and 118 runs scored. Phew.

Last summer, he was the MVP of the South Atlantic League all-star game, went 3-for-4 in the Futures Game and was named USA Today's minor-league player of the year. And this spring, Baseball America anointed him as the No. 1 prospect in all the land.

In other words, this is the kind of kid who tends to get a team's attention.

"Josh Hamilton has a chance to be one of the finest players in the game," says GM Chuck LaMar. "He's unique in that he has a tremendous amount of God-given ability, he has baseball instincts, and he has the makeup to use both of those.

"We're not going to rush him," LaMar says. "He's in camp. He's showed everybody the ability he has already. If he earns a spot on this club – great. But if not, we're going to send him back and continue to develop him."

Hamilton, for his part, says: "I'm not expecting anything." But there's an irony in that – because this is a kid who has had expectations following him around half his life.

And he has dealt with all of them. Still, his veteran teammates are making sure this spring he remembers just how young he is.

"He has a lot of confidence in himself," smiles 14-year veteran Fred McGriff. "Every day I read the paper, he's going to hit 50-60 home runs once he gets up here."

McGriff tries to steer the conversation back toward extolling Hamilton's many talents – but every couple of sentences, he can't resist jabbing one more needle.

"Great talent," McGriff gushes. "I mean, I watch him out here taking infield, and man, he's got a great arm."


"But his feet are kind of big," he says of Hamilton's size-19s.

OK, back to the kudos.

"The guy's a great talent," McGriff goes on. "He can swing the bat. He's one of those guys where it's just a matter of time before he gets a shot. From what I've seen so far, he has a lot of confidence. He believes in his ability."

Oops. One more jab left. And here it comes: "Somebody told him he's a good player, that he's a great player," McGriff says, chuckling. "And he believes it."

In the eyes of people other than clubhouse ego-busters, though, Hamilton is actually about as soft-spoken and down to earth as future megastars get.

Rather than stage the usual No. 1-pick post-draft holdout, he was under contract within two days of the draft and in uniform in under two weeks.

He regularly visits sick children in hospitals. He talks earnestly about making sure he's friendly and accessible to fans.

If there's any pressure on him, he says, "it's good pressure."

And he's right. If he keeps hitting .176, he'll just make the Devil Rays' decision easier – for now. But only temporarily, because he'll be back some day, and probably some day soon.

If he doesn't make this club, says Rothschild, "I don't think that's the worst thing in the world. It's not a stop and a start. It's more of a pendulum, where you get to the minor leagues and get yourself ready to play here and get back here. ...

"His future's going to bright no matter what happens this year," Rothschild says. "He just needs to know that."

And if Josh Hamilton doesn't know that, well, he'd be about the only one on earth who doesn't.

Jayson Stark is a Senior Writer at ESPN.com.

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