Rejuvenated Hairston returns to Cincy
Super utilityman signs one-year deal after comeback '08 season
CINCINNATI --- A year ago, Jerry Hairston Jr. was without a team, and his career was essentially a stalled vehicle on the shoulder of the big league highway.Hairston used the 2008 season to become a marketable free agent in demand, and he successfully made the most of it. As reported on Tuesday night, the 32-year-old infielder/outfielder was re-signed by Cincinnati to a one-year contract worth $2 million. The deal, which includes up to an additional $2 million in incentives, became official on Wednesday. "I'll tell you what -- Cincinnati took a chance on me last year," Hairston said. "And I knew if it was going to be close, I was going back to Cincinnati. I'm a loyal person and really wanted to come back to Cincinnati because they gave me that opportunity when nobody else would. I'm a firm believer at second chances in life. I've gotten my second chance, and I plan to make the most of it." Behind Hairston's difficulty landing a job last year was his injury history. He batted just .189 in 2007 for the Rangers while battling neck and back issues. With the Reds last season, he missed 44 games after he fractured his left thumb and twice strained his right hamstring. In 2009, Hairston aims to prove he can be durable. He has spent his offseason at home in Arizona improving his conditioning, and he began working with a nutritionist after learning bad nutrition might have led to his hamstring troubles last season. He said he is running at 100 percent intensity. "I really feel the second half of my career is going to be great," said Hairston, who was also pursued by the Cardinals and Royals. "I feel like I have 6-7 great years left for me and I'm going to maximize it." If Hairston can stay healthy, it would be lucrative. According to figures obtained by MLB.com, he would receive an additional $250,000 for reaching each plateau of 325, 375 and 425 plate appearances, and another $500,000 for 525 plate appearances. Hairston batted .326 with six home runs, 36 RBIs, 15 stolen bases and a .384 on-base percentage in 80 games for the Reds last season after signing a Minor League contract during Spring Training. After an April promotion from Triple-A, Hairston played six different positions for the Reds and was their most effective leadoff hitter. The club was 25-19 when he led off. "A lot was his versatility and that he protects us in a lot of positions," Reds general manager Walt Jocketty said of the reasons for retaining Hairston. "He has offensive ability and can bat in the top part of the order and has a good on-base percentage. It was a lot of factors." Despite a source telling MLB.com on Tuesday that Hairston would become the everyday shortstop in 2009 because Alex Gonzalez wouldn't be ready, Jocketty said that Gonzalez is still be counted on as the regular shortstop. "The latest we have on Gonzalez is very positive and he should be ready," Jocketty said. "Jerry would protect us there if he isn't ready. Right now, we're still planning on Gonzalez being ready to play."
Gonzalez, who missed all of the 2008 season, had microfracture surgery on his left knee in July and is believed to be making progress. The club will know more when the medical staff examines Gonzalez.In the meantime, Hairston proclaimed himself ready to play where needed and can fill a super-utility role. The Reds currently have a left field vacancy, and he is also an option to play there. "He will probably play a lot of left field, but he is versatile and can play all over," Jocketty said. "He'll get a lot of playing time, but maybe not at one position." Hairston played 24 games in left field and 34 at shortstop last season for the Reds. "With me, it never really matters where I play," Hairston said. "I would prefer the infield because I'm an infielder by trade. Once the season gets going, things happen and I'll go where I'm needed." When Hairston does play, he could likely slot in behind new acquisition and leadoff hitter Willy Taveras in the lineup's No. 2 spot. Hairston is encouraged by what he sees as improved athleticism on the Reds. "I really feel there is a light at the end of the tunnel with the talent they have and guys like Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce," Hairston said. "I was talking to [manager Dusty Baker,] and especially with the addition of Willy Taveras, we have a very athletic team. And if you look at the dynamics of our sport now, defense and speed and pitching really win ballgames. Look at the way the Rays played last year. That's where our sport is headed, and it's definitely up my alley."
Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.