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Hamilton honing switch-hitting skills for 2018

MLB.com @m_sheldon

CINCINNATI -- Two years away from being a free agent and the leadoff man for a Reds team trying to turn the corner, center fielder Billy Hamilton enters a pivotal season in 2018.

Hamilton, 27, is eligible for arbitration again, but he is coming off of down year at the plate. He was the subject of trade rumors during the Winter Meetings as well.

CINCINNATI -- Two years away from being a free agent and the leadoff man for a Reds team trying to turn the corner, center fielder Billy Hamilton enters a pivotal season in 2018.

Hamilton, 27, is eligible for arbitration again, but he is coming off of down year at the plate. He was the subject of trade rumors during the Winter Meetings as well.

"This is one of the biggest years of my whole career," Hamilton said. "I've got to get me where I want to be on the baseball field."

Hamilton batted .247 with a .299 on-base percentage and 85 runs over 139 games in 2017 as he struggled to get on base consistently. For the fourth straight year, he had more than 56 steals -- a career-high 59 this season -- but another September injury (fractured right thumb) cost him the stolen-base crown.

But this offseason is different. Hamilton has been able to focus on baseball activity over rehabilitation, since this September injury isn't as serious as they have been in the past.

"I want to get to get a point where I can maintain a good average and on-base percentage," Hamilton said. "If I can be consistent at the plate, I feel like my career will keep getting better."

Video: BOS@CIN: Hamilton turns pickoff attempt into a run

Teammates and manager Bryan Price have often told Hamilton that they will go as far as he goes as a hitter setting the tone. He can create pressure on the bases like no other, and he can set up run-scoring opportunities for hitters like Joey Votto.

While these are key seasons for maximizing his earning potential, contractually, Hamilton maintains that his on-field priorities are what drive him to improve.

"If I'm doing my job, I'm pretty sure we will probably be winning," Hamilton said. "That's going to help me with the contract, anyway."

Once again, Hamilton is dedicating his offseason to improving as a hitter. In past offseasons, he has worked with coach Billy Hatcher in Cincinnati or Triple-A Louisville manager Delino DeShields. This winter, Hamilton planned on being in Dallas to work with Reds assistant hitting coach Tony Jaramillo.

"Me and Hatch did a great job of hitting and communicating together, but it was in Cincinnati, and we weren't able to get outside as much as I wanted," Hamilton said. "I feel like being on the field and doing stuff outside makes it even better."

Hamilton, a natural right-handed hitter, contemplated giving up switch-hitting in past offseasons. But one area of improvement in 2017 came from the left side of the plate, where he batted .259 with a .322 on-base percentage. However, he took a dip from the right side, batting .219 with a .241 OBP.

"I will feel good for a while right-handed, but not good left-handed. Or I will feel good left-handed and not as good right-handed," Hamilton said. "I'm trying to figure out how to get both of them going and feel comfortable on both sides.

"I feel like I did a great job left-handed last year. I don't want to stop switch-hitting. I want to continue to do my best at it to get better. I know it's been tough for me to get both of them right at the same time. It's my goal this offseason to get both of them right."

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.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

Cincinnati Reds, Billy Hamilton