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Hamilton eager to prove himself in leadoff spot

Speedster focused on improving on-base percentage
MLB.com @m_sheldon

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- For the first Cactus League game of the year on Friday vs. the Indians, Reds manager Bryan Price wrote out a lineup that could closely resemble the one he'll use on Opening Day. It features center fielder Billy Hamilton at the top.

Hamilton's speed, stolen-base ability and offensive potential should make him a prototypical leadoff man. But the career results -- so far -- have often shown otherwise. Is Hamilton going to remain at the top of Price's order in 2018?

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- For the first Cactus League game of the year on Friday vs. the Indians, Reds manager Bryan Price wrote out a lineup that could closely resemble the one he'll use on Opening Day. It features center fielder Billy Hamilton at the top.

Hamilton's speed, stolen-base ability and offensive potential should make him a prototypical leadoff man. But the career results -- so far -- have often shown otherwise. Is Hamilton going to remain at the top of Price's order in 2018?

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"He is right now," Price replied Friday. "I think that there's a lot of room for Billy to get better at what he does as an offensive player, but the decisions will be made based on what he provides us at the top of the order."

Although he has stolen 56 or more bases each of the past four seasons -- including a career high of 59 steals in 2017 -- Hamilton has a career on-base percentage of .298. Of the 105 hitters with 2,000 plate appearances since 2014, he has the fifth-lowest OBP and is one of three hitters in MLB during that span with at least three seasons of 450-plus plate appearances and a sub-.300 OBP.

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Hamilton, 27, batted .247 with a .299 on-base percentage and 85 runs in his 139 games last season.

According to Statcast™, Hamilton had the lowest average exit velocity (79.1 mph) among the 182 hitters with 300-plus batted balls last season. His expected batting average (xBA) was .212, which is based on the quality of his contact.

When he started, Hamilton batted exclusively leadoff in 2017.

"That's where I've been my whole career. That's where I want to be," Hamilton said. "I know this is baseball and Bryan has given me plenty of chances to hit there. That's where I feel like I need to be. I have to do what I have to do to be up there. He's not going to just give me a spot."

Price noted that Hamilton won't always be there. In past seasons, especially when Hamilton was struggling, the manager has used him in the eighth and ninth spots.

"I'm still looking to see the evolution of Billy as a leadoff man, I'd love him to hold down that spot. If we're a better team with someone else hitting up a little higher, that's the way we'll go," Price said. "I imagine you'll see him moving around a little bit."

Besides performance-based reasons, there will be times that Hamilton doesn't lead off because he is not in the starting lineup at all. With the plan to rotate four outfielders among three spots -- with Hamilton, Adam Duvall, Scott Schebler and Jesse Winker -- one of them will be coming off of the bench on a given day.

Price didn't rule out using Winker in the leadoff spot. He batted .298/.375/.529 in 47 games last season as a rookie, and had a .398 career OBP in the Minor Leagues. He made eight starts from the top of the big league order.

Price would not say if he would definitely bat Winker first when Hamilton is also starting.

"We'll have to see. Again, it's best lineup and best matchup," Price said. "That's yet to be seen. It's possible."

Hamilton has worked to reach his hitting potential with coaches and even teammate Joey Votto. On Friday near the batting cage, he was getting tips from former manager and senior advisor Lou Piniella.

"I don't want to hit anywhere but leadoff," Hamilton said. "That's the type of player I am and have always been."

It will be up to Hamilton to prove it during the regular season.

Mark Sheldon has covered the Reds for MLB.com since 2006, and previously covered the Twins from 2001-05. Follow him on Twitter @m_sheldon and Facebook and listen to his podcast.

Cincinnati Reds, Billy Hamilton