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Freel, Reds making room for Hamilton

CINCINNATI -- Center fielder Ryan Freel didn't wait for somebody to tell him to start taking infield practice. He can see what the Cincinnati Reds need most.

Mostly, they need to have Josh Hamilton in the lineup.

A day after Freel agreed to a two-year, $7 million contract extension, he was on the move. Freel was at third base yesterday, a temporary position switch to accommodate a player who needs a permanent place in the lineup.

Josh Hamilton has been that good.

"I know that for the Reds' sake, for our team, you've got to have that guy's bat in the lineup," Freel said. "I'm not going to hit 30 home runs. I know there's people still questioning [Hamilton], saying, 'Let's see how this pans out.' This kid's ready."

Since the Reds acquired him through a Rule 5 draft trade in December, the 25-year-old outfielder has been their most intriguing player. He has overcome years of drug and alcohol addiction, gotten his life in order and started showing what he can do as a baseball player.

Hamilton was the most impressive player in the Reds' spring training camp, earning a role as the fourth outfielder. Even though he was out of baseball for most of the last four years, Hamilton has given glimpses of why he was the first overall pick in the June 1999 draft.

His pinch-hit, two-run homer Monday night gave him three homers and seven RBIs in only 18 at-bats, numbers that make a good case for more playing time. Now, Hamilton is going to get it.

Manager Jerry Narron put Hamilton in center field last night and made it clear he will try to get him in the lineup consistently.

"Josh has a chance to be a difference maker," Narron said. "He's got all the tools. There are very few guys like Josh in the game."

Hamilton can play center or right field. Ken Griffey Jr. was moved from center to right field during spring training so Freel could have a full-time spot in center -- the first time during Freel's career that he could concentrate on one role.

Watching Hamilton perform in his limited chances made Freel realize he was going to have to go back to his utility role to create a place for the newcomer. So, on his own, Freel started taking infield practice last week.

"I've been taking ground balls over the last four or five days," Freel said. "I was just reading between the lines of what's going on. We have to have Hamilton's bat in the lineup. I figured out what was going to be happening. Nobody told me."

Narron told Freel yesterday that he would be at third base for the first time since July 8, giving the slumping Edwin Encarnacion a rest. After that, Narron will try to figure out how to juggle the lineup to keep Hamilton in it.

Hamilton hadn't played in the major leagues before this season. He surprised everyone with the way he hit and played in the outfield during spring training. The only thing he didn't do was hit many home runs, something Narron expected would happen as he got his timing back.

He had one of his best swings yet on the pinch-hit homer Monday night.

"The power's there," Narron said. "I think he's just scratching the surface of what he can do because he doesn't use the bottom half [of his body] as much as a lot of power hitters do.

"He's still learning. He's got a long ways to go at this level, believe it or not. If we can get him at-bats, I think he's got the ability to catch up. And when he does get it, it's going to be real interesting."

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