Consider this...you’re an up and coming first base prospect in the St. Louis Cardinals organization, with a bright future ahead of yourself. You can crush the ball and you’re getting praise from the coaches for it. But one person stands in your way, keeping you from taking over your long-time position - that person being National League MVP Albert Pujols and there is really no way of getting around it.
A couple of things that you must think through now that your career is knocking on the major league door. One is you take a chance and stay at the corner and most likely waste your career away waiting for El Hombre to leave or go down with an injury. The other option is head back to your old position in left field and build upon those skills that haven't been used in the years you have been a professional.
These are the things Mark Hamilton must face now that he has worked his way up through the Cardinals system. The left-handed hitter has been added to the 40-man roster and has a chance to make his major league debut in the near future, possibly in the next year. In the four years Hamilton has played in the farm system, he has put up a career .270 batting average, .348 OBP, .453 SLG and .801 OPS. He has collected 71 doubles, 52 home runs and 215 RBIs. The 25-year old 2006 second round compensation pick has played 285 games at first base, 21 as designated hitter, and only one in left field (during the 2009 season).
The one thing that many may not know is Hamilton played in the outfield regularly when he attended Tulane. In his junior season, he started 32 games in left and two in right out of the 57 games in which he participated. This is not like the Chris Duncan situation, where the Cardinals just tossed a player who was unfamiliar with the position out in the middle of nowhere just to keep his bat with the team.
Even though the Cardinals system is overloaded with potential major league outfielders, Hamilton remains positive that he will contribute for the club. Experience and confidence are going to keep the 6-foot-4 220-pounder in the mix when it comes to a future call to the bigs.
Hamilton's winter season didn't go very well for him at the plate, but it was more of getting in the mind frame of being an outfielder once again. He had some big moments drilling a home run and driving in four on October 18th and then slugging a two-run shot on November 7th. Hamilton had two outfield assists and only committed one error in the 15 played. He was released by the Gigantes del Cibao on November 16th.
A little over a month ago I caught up with Mark while he was still playing in the Dominican League and chatted with him off and on until his release. He was kind enough to answer quite a few questions on such subjects as his experience in the Dominican, making the move back to the outfield, injuries, and even being added to the 40-man roster. Please enjoy and feel free to comment on the message board.
Josh Jones: Whose decision was it to make the move into the outfield, yours or the Cardinals? And how did it come about?
Mark Hamilton: I played a lot of outfield in college and high school. Prior to my professional career I had played significantly more outfield than first base. During Spring Training this year I expressed some interest in playing out there again as a way to give myself more options to be in the lineup. They were very receptive to the idea and set me up with the opportunity to play left field with the Gigantes. I worked on tracking balls during BP in Memphis and played one game against the Isotopes in left after Nick Stavinoha was injured in the game.
J.J.: Is playing the outfield something you are looking forward to doing in the future and how do you plan to improve on it?
M.H.: I always enjoyed playing both outfield and first base. I know that playing it at the professional level is very different than at the collegiate level and am willing to put in the work to improve. I think hard work and dedication is what makes someone improve as a player and I plan on doing what it takes to be a contributor at whatever level I am playing.
J.J.: What did you plan to work on during your winter stay (hitting or fielding)?
M.H.: The main purpose of going to winter ball was to work on playing a new position and to get a few more at bats that I had missed out on during the season due to my groin injury.
J.J: Were you a little nervous heading down to the Dominican and was there anyone there that helped with the transition?
M.H.: I was looking forward to playing there. It was a very fun and interesting experience and one I could never have in the States. My Spanish is fairly good and I was able to get around and communicate with relative ease.
J.J.: What were the fans like compared to the ones you have come across in Triple-A, Double-A, etc?
M.H.: The fans were unlike anything you would find in the States. They chant, play drums, and sometimes even march and dance around the stadium. They were extremely rowdy at all times and it was quite the experience to have marching bands playing trumpets and drums during every moment of the game.
J.J.: What was the competition like in the Dominican compared to Triple-A, Double-A, etc?
M.H.: The competition there was very good. I saw a lot of players I had encountered before in AA and AAA this and other years. There were also a lot of players with big league time; something I saw more in AAA.
J.J.: How did you celebrate Halloween this year or maybe any of the Dominican holidays?
M.H.: Where we were in the city, there was not very much around. We basically had the hotel and a casino owned by the hotel and that was it. There were not any other points of interest for about 2 miles or more. Due to this and the intense schedule of travel, we did not really get out very much. I think I spent Halloween eating dinner at the hotel with the other American players.
J.J.: What did you do to keep yourself occupied when not playing ball?
M.H.: See above. The American players and I would play cards and go to La Sirena, the Dominican equivalent of Wal-Mart.
J.J.: What was the step up from Double-A Springfield to Triple-A Memphis like for you (competition, atmosphere)?
M.H.: The biggest difference between AA and AAA for me was the level of experience of the average player. In AAA the pitchers were a little more crafty and the position players were a little more disciplined and played better defense. In AA you saw a lot of good pitchers with great stuff. In AAA you saw a lot of guys who had great stuff and knew how to get outs. They would pitch to the situation and the hitter and we able to execute their pitches a little more often.
J.J.: What was it like for you personally to be a part of the Memphis Redbirds 2009 PCL Championship?
M.H.: I will never forget winning the PCL Championship. We had a great group of guys with strong team chemistry. When I arrived at the All-Star break, Memphis was in second place in the division and we back by about 10 games. Being a part of a team that pulled together and put on a run like we did was simply amazing. We had a diverse roster of young and veteran players that really gave us the energy and experience needed to win the league.
J.J.: Has it been frustrating dealing with injuries the last two seasons, taking away some quality time in the field and at the plate?
M.H.: Injuries are unfortunately a part of the game. The wrist break in 2008 was tough, but also gave me some time to reevaluate my mechanics and approach. At the time, I was worried I may not bounce back, but I look back and realize that I rebounded from that injury a better player with a better outlook on the game. The groin pull in 2009 would not have been much of an issue if I had not re-injured it in Memphis.
When I first pulled it in Springfield I was on a hot streak and the team was in a playoff race. I was extremely eager to get back on the field and may have pushed to come back too soon. I felt I was ready at the time, but re-aggravated the injury in Memphis during yet another playoff race. I had a decision to either try to play through it or let it sideline me for a longer time. I wanted to play and be a part of that run so I braced it and did my rehab and played.
J.J.: How does it feel to be added to the St. Louis Cardinals 40-man roster and were you at all concerned about being protected during the Rule 5 Draft?
M.H.: Being added to the 40-man roster is an honor. There are only 1200 players on 40-man rosters and to be one of them is quite an honor. I have really put dedication into my career and being put on the 40-man shows that the Cardinals acknowledge and appreciate that dedication. The Cardinals are a first class organization with a lot of heritage and tradition and it is an honor to be a member of their 40-man roster.
J.J.: Are you at all concerned about the competition in the outfield in the Cardinals organization?
M.H.: There is competition everywhere. Anyone who is concerned about the competition will never make it at a high level. I need to focus on what I can control: my preparation and skill set. Being able to play first base and outfield is an advantage as it would allow me more spots on the field to play. As a left-handed hitter and thrower, the options are first base, outfield, and DH. There is no DH in the National League and first base seems to have some pretty strong competition for the Cardinals in the big leagues as well! I am looking forward to the opportunity to showcase my skills and work hard to be a member of a baseball club, no matter what position or role I fill.
J.J.: Is there anything you are doing to improve at the plate vs. left handed pitchers?
M.H.: I feel that this year I improved significantly against left-handed pitching. I spoke a lot with Derrick May about how he faced left-handers and I feel it made me a better hitter. The struggles against them in the Dominican were just part of the statistical factor of baseball. I only had 12 or 13 at bats against them and it is too small of a sample size to judge. I felt I had some very good at bats against left-handers while I was down there but did not manage to get any results. That is just the nature of the game, especially in a small amount of at bats.
J.J.: Do you believe you have the ability to be a quality MLB outfielder?
M.H.: Yes. I have a lot to learn and need to get my repetitions in order to improve, but I feel that I have the basic skill set to play that position. I look forward to surrounding myself with those who can help me become a better position player and putting in the work to improve my play.
J.J.: How do you feel about the possibility of working with Cardinals legend Mark McGwire?
M.H.: Mark McGwire is a legend. I remember when he was acquired by St. Louis. I just happened to be in Philadelphia and the Cardinals were there. McGwire did not play but I remember watching him hit balls into the upper deck at Veterans Stadium. Anytime you have an opportunity to work with or even be around someone like Mark McGwire is a huge advantage for your career as a ballplayer.
A very special thanks to Mark Hamilton for taking time out of his busy schedule to sit down and answer questions for all of us here at The Cardinal Nation. We all wish you the best and hope you make your dream come true of being a major league star.
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