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.