Hamilton wants his job back as Cincinnati’s leadoff batter

Published 3:00 am Tuesday, March 1, 2016

GOODYEAR, Ariz. (AP) — Billy Hamilton hasn’t fully recovered from shoulder surgery last September, slowing his quest to regain the leadoff spot for the Cincinnati Reds.

Hamilton struggled at the plate during his second full season in the majors and was dropped to ninth in the order. He hurt his right shoulder and had surgery in September to repair a torn labrum. He’s taking it slowly during spring training.

“My shoulder is getting there,” he said on Monday. “I’m not to the point where I’m 100 percent healthy yet, but I’m doing some things to get better. I’m not going to rush into games. I can’t go all out right away and expect the play the whole season with it.”

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The shoulder injury ended a disappointing season for Hamilton, who needs to get on base more frequently in order to use his game-changing speed. During his rookie season in 2014, he batted .250 and stole 56 bases but was caught 23 times, most in the National League.

He batted only .226 last season in 114 games, getting 93 hits while striking out 75 times in 413 at-bats. He stole 57 bases and was caught only eight times, an indication he got better and knowing when to run. Now it’s all about getting to first base.

“Is Billy a leadoff man or is he better suited to hitting somewhere else in the order? That’s the question,” manager Bryan Price said. “He is a major league player. He’s a game changer defensively. We’re still defining him as a leadoff man with a lot of optimism from the coaching staff and the front office that he can handle the job.”

Hamilton was one of the top center fielders in the majors last season. With his speed, he was able to get to fly balls that few others can reach. He also set a club record by going the entire season without an error in 281 total chances. He led the NL in fielding percentage by an outfielder and tied the Angels’ Mike Trout and the Yankees’ Jacoby Ellsbury for best fielding percentage by a center fielder.

He hurt his right shoulder while diving for a ball on Aug. 18 and went on the disabled list through Sept. 7. He aggravated the injury and went on the disabled list again Sept. 24 and had surgery.

Hamilton stayed in Cincinnati in the offseason to rebuild the shoulder and overhaul his swing.

“It was a willingness to say that what I’m doing isn’t working,” Price said. “We believe he has a much higher ceiling offensively and that he needs to address it aggressively. I think he’s done that.”

Hamilton spent a lot of time with Reds coaches studying not only his swing but how pitchers approached him.

“I did a lot of things,” he said. “I took some swings but I watched tape. We talked about what I wanted to do as a hitter. We talked about what I did last year and what I could’ve done better. We talked about situations and what I did and how pitchers were going to pitch me. We had a lot of cameras set up to show me what I was doing last year and how to handle it better.”

First, he has to get the shoulder fully healthy. Price will sit him for the opening game of spring training on Tuesday, but plans to get him in the lineup a day later.

“We’ve worked him hard,” Price said. “We’ve asked him to do a lot and he’s not at the point that he feels 100 percent every day.”

NOTES: Price said that shortstop Zack Cozart and catcher Devin Mesoraco will sit out the first three exhibition games. Both are coming off injuries and Price wants to ease them in. Cozart had reconstructive knee surgery and Mesoraco had hip surgery. Both are expected to be ready for opening day.