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Adding productive leadoff man is Reds' top priority

CINCINNATI -- Instead of finding stability at the leadoff spot in recent years, the Reds have generally had a quagmire.

Many players have hit first for Cincinnati, with varying degrees of success or failure, and it's taken two general managers and three managers to arrive at this same familiar place.

The Reds head into the offseason with leadoff hitter being their top need. Finding one has been a head scratcher for president of baseball operations and general manager Walt Jocketty.

"I haven't done it in five years," Jocketty said. "It will be very difficult. There aren't a lot of candidates."

This past season, the Reds had seven different players bat first -- Zack Cozart, Drew Stubbs, Brandon Phillips and Chris Heisey saw the most time there, with Willie Harris, Xavier Paul and Wilson Valdez also getting cameo appearances.

The result? Reds leadoff hitters combined to bat .208 with a .254 on-base percentage -- both ranked last in the Major Leagues. The No. 1 hitters scored 83 runs, tied for the second-worst among the 30 big league teams.

Cincinnati still won 97 games and the National League Central while finishing in the middle of the pack in runs scored. Clearly there is room for improvement.

Jocketty has generally avoided the free-agent market for major fixes since joining the Reds. And with a limited number of inventory available, prices could be cost-prohibitive.

And there is an X-factor in the leadoff hitter search who remains a year or more away from the Majors -- Top prospect Billy Hamilton. The 22-year-old will figure into the equation before the Reds decide to commit dollars and years to a free agent or moving players and prospects to make a trade.

"Sure, but it's still a lot to ask of a guy without a lot of experience," Jocketty said of Hamilton. "We'll monitor him. That's why we'll watch him in the [Arizona] Fall League, check his progress and see how he is in Spring Training."

Over the years, the Reds have tried the likes of Ryan Freel and Norris Hopper, as well as free-agent flops like Corey Patterson and Willy Taveras. They tried the unconventional, with Jay Bruce and Scott Hatteberg. They've used Phillips there with more success in past seasons, but his versatility made him attractive in other lineup spots, too.

On the free-agent market this time around, the most coveted among the leadoff hitters would be Braves center fielder Michael Bourn. A lefty hitter who will turn 30 in December, Bourn batted .274 with a .348 on-base percentage and 42 steals in 155 games this season and is a .272 hitter with a .339 OBP lifetime over seven seasons.

The downside is Bourn made $6.5 million in his third and final arbitration eligible year. Represented by Scott Boras, Bourn is guaranteed not to come cheaply or easily, as there should be other suitors when he hits the open market for the first time.

Currently in the World Series with the Giants, center fielder Angel Pagan has batted in multiple places around the lineup during his career, but has led off most often. Pagan is a .297 hitter with a .340 OBP in 234 career games from the top spot. In 2012, which included 80 games for the Giants leading off, the 31-year-old Pagan batted .288 with a .338 OBP, eight home runs and an NL-leading 15 triples. He earned $4.85 million in 2012 and will be eligible for free agency for the first time this winter.

Other free agents could provide short term solutions. Switch-hitting center fielder Shane Victorino, who turns 32 next month, endured the least productive full year of his career in 2012. He batted .255 with a .321 OBP for the Phillies and Dodgers. Victorino, who was moved in a Trade Deadline deal to Los Angeles, made $9.5 million in the final season of a three-year contract.

Left fielder Juan Pierre, who is 35, will rack up the singles and walks, as he batted .307 with a .351 OBP and 37 steals for the Phillies this past season. Pierre earned $800,000 and would fit the reasonably-priced category.

Also sure to be available is oft-injured Indians center fielder Grady Sizemore, who will hit the open market with little leverage. Sizemore, a 30-year-old former All-Star, missed all of this past season with back and knee injuries and was limited to 71 games in 2011 and 33 games in '10. But in 705 career games as a leadoff man, Sizemore has batted .274 with a .366 OBP and 121 homers.

On the trade market, the Reds could revisit someone they had pursued in July in Twins center fielder Denard Span. In 128 games for Minnesota, Span batted .283 with a .342 OBP and 17 steals. Span, who will be 29 next season, has two years and $11.25 million left on his five-year contract, plus a $9 million club option for 2015. The Twins are desperate for starting pitching and it would take a lot in return for them to move Span.

In Oakland, Coco Crisp could be expendable after the A's acquired center fielder Chris Young from Arizona last week. Crisp, who turns 33 next week, batted .259 with a .325 OBP and 39 steals this past season and has a .274 average and .329 OBP over an 11-season career. Crisp, who has good range defensively but a weak arm, will be in the final year of his contract and earn $7 million in 2013, with a $7.5 million club option for '14.

How the Reds attack their need for a leadoff man remains a mystery, in part because most of the solutions are center fielders. They already have a center fielder in Stubbs, who is one of the best in the game defensively but has endured two straight poor years at the plate. Stubbs is arbitration-eligible for the first time.

If Stubbs remains, as expected, the new leadoff hitter could shift to left field -- but only if the Reds do not retain Ryan Ludwick. It's expected that Ludwick will decline his 2013 mutual option for $5 million and try his luck in free agency after a rebound year. Both sides are interested in his returning, but like most everything during the opening moments of the Hot Stove season, there are more questions than answers.

Cincinnati Reds, Michael Bourn, Coco Crisp, Angel Pagan, Juan Pierre, Grady Sizemore, Drew Stubbs, Shane Victorino