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With Choo likely gone, Hamilton poised to fill void

Speedy Reds prospect preparing to patrol center field, bat leadoff in '14

CINCINNATI -- Billy Hamilton only spent September watching teammate and Shin-Soo Choo, but he made sure to pay close attention to the man he will likely replace as the Reds' leadoff hitter and center fielder.

Hamilton wanted to learn from Choo before that as well.

"I didn't get to play with him the whole year, but I watched him whenever I had the chance while I was at Triple-A," said Hamilton, one of the Reds' attendees to Redsfest this weekend.

Choo is expected to headed out as a free agent after only one year in Cincinnati. General manager Walt Jocketty conceded that Choo would be out of his club's price range.

"It's going to be very difficult for us with the amount of money that's out there," Jocketty said. "[Hamilton] would be our leadoff hitter if we went to Spring Training tomorrow."

Reds president/CEO Bob Castellini was also very high on Hamilton and felt that he could handle the job.

"We better be looking at Billy Hamilton. He'll be up to it. Don't count him out," Castellini said.

Choo was second in the National League with a .423 on-base percentage, which led all Major League leadoff hitters. He also had 116 walks and reached base safely 300 times.

Those will be difficult numbers to make up for anyone who replaces Choo.

"That's going to be big shoes to fill, but I feel like I can keep working at it and it will come," Hamilton said. "It's been a good experience this offseason thus far."

The Reds are supremely confident in Hamilton's speed, a feeling that was easily confirmed with his electric month in the Majors. He stole 13 bases in 14 attempts and scored two game-winning runs, a go-ahead run in extra innings and a game-tying run.

Defensively, Hamilton switched to center field in the fall of 2012 and took to it easily in just one season after spending his entire pro career as a shortstop.

The only question left for the Reds have answered is if the switch-hitting Hamilton can get on base consistently enough to be a successful Major League leadoff hitter.

"If he's the player we think he can be, there is no doubt that he'd be sitting on top of the lineup," Reds manager Bryan Price said. "What we're trying to do right now is define and decide if he's ready take on that responsibility.

"If he is what we think he can be, he'll be just what we need -- somebody that puts that bit of fear in every opponent. I watched Ichiro do it. He was a true left-handed hitter, but the speed tool just created a sense of anxiety that was palpable on the field."

In 123 games for Triple-A Louisville last season, Hamilton batted .256 with only a .308 on-base percentage. In 13 big league games, including three starts, he batted .368 with a .429 on-base percentage.

Hamilton spent most of November playing winter ball in Puerto Rico with the specific purpose of getting more at-bats. His overall numbers for Santurce weren't strong as he batted .227 with a .284 on-base percentage and 11 steals in 13 attempts.

Over his final four games in Puerto Rico, however, Hamilton was 8-for-18 (.444).

"I went over there to get more at-bats, to try and learn and see more pitches," Hamilton said. "Over there, you've got guys that are more old school and don't throw as hard. They don't use their fastball as much. I struggled a little bit with the offspeed pitch. I saw a lot, but now I feel like the month I was there, I learned which offspeed pitches I can hit and the ones I can't hit. It was a really good experience. It helped me out a lot."

The good news for Hamilton is the Reds don't expect him to post Choo-like on-base numbers from the leadoff spot. What they do expect from him is to put the ball in play and develop as a bunter to reach safely. Hamilton is capable of creating more opportunities than Choo did by using his speed to get into scoring position for the middle of the lineup.

Until Spring Training, Hamilton will be home in Mississippi working out and getting himself ready.

"It's my job to do what I can to get the spot," Hamilton said. "I've been working really hard this offseason to learn more stuff to help me. My main key is to be healthy and ready for Spring Training and try to win the job."

Mark Sheldon is a reporter for Read his blog, Mark My Word, and follow him on Twitter @m_sheldon.

Cincinnati Reds, Shin-Soo Choo, Billy Hamilton