Hamilton reportedly will start in Cincy

Speedster will bat leadoff and patrol center field Opening Day

Billy Hamilton stole 75 bases in 90 International League games in 2013. (Mike Stewart)

By Ashley Marshall / MiLB.com | December 24, 2013 12:13 AM ET

Cincinnati speedster Billy Hamilton lit up the base paths as a pinch-runner during his September callup this fall.

Now the Reds reportedly are prepared to incorporate the Minor League's stolen-base king into their Opening Day roster as their starting center fielder and leadoff hitter.

With the uncertainty created by Shin-Soo Choo's departure to Texas, Reds GM Walt Jocketty told the Cincinnati Enquirer that MLB.com's No. 16 prospect will be penciled into the top slot in the lineup when the team hosts the St. Louis Cardinals on March 31.

"He's the guy," Jocketty said. "We feel confident he can be a good leadoff hitter. He'll give us great defense. The only question is how often he can get on base. He'll start working on his bunting again after the first of the year. If he can master that, it will really help him."

The 23-year-old converted shortstop swiped 13 bags in 14 attempts in 13 games with the big club this year. In 2012, Hamilton stole 155 bases across two levels to surpass Vince Coleman's 29-year-old single-season Minors record of 145.

Choo, who earned around $7.3 million, hit .285 with 21 homers, 54 RBIs and 20 steals in 154 games with the Reds. The 30-year-old drew 112 free passes to help record a career-high .423 on-base percentage, leading to a reported seven-year $130-million deal with the Rangers last week.

"I didn't get to play with [Choo] the whole year, but I watched him whenever I had the chance while I was at Triple-A," Hamilton told MLB.com earlier this month.

"That's going to be big shoes to fill, but I feel like I can keep working at it and it will come."

Now entering his sixth year in pro ball, Hamilton has impressed teammates and opponents alike with blazing speed that has often been compared with Rickey Henderson. His work in the field has also seen growth. He posted a .980 fielding percentage in the International League in 2013. He made seven errors in 348 chances and he recorded eight outfield assists.

But Hamilton's success and longevity will largely depend on his ability to hit and get on base. The top Reds prospect batted .368 in 19 at-bats with the Reds this year, but he only amassed a .256/.308/.343 slash line in 123 appearances with Triple-A Louisville.

The Reds moved Hamilton to the outfield at the end of the 2012 Minor League season to give him a chance to learn his routes and outfield reads during the Arizona Fall League.

The idea was to lessen the toll on his body of playing shortstop in the hope that Hamilton, selected by the Reds out of Taylorsville High School in Mississippi in the second round of the 2009 Draft, would avoid injury and lengthen his career.

Ashley Marshall is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @AshMarshallMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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