CINCINNATI - Bryan Price’s first attempt to piece together his four-man outfield puzzle sent ripples through Reds Nation on Friday.
Price's Opening Day lineup had Jesse Winker playing left field and batting first, Billy Hamilton batting ninth, and Scott Schebler getting the start and not Adam Duvall, who’s coming off a 31-home run season.
As long as the current roster remains intact, the Reds’ outfield will remain fluid, Price said.
Against Nationals right-hander Max Scherzer, the two-time Cy Young Award winner, Price wanted the left-handed batting Winker and Schebler in the lineup. But the decision to bat Hamilton ninth behind starting pitcher Homer Bailey and Winker leadoff is really what raised eyebrows.
It’s a move some have clamored for, with Winker batting .298 with a .375 on-base percentage during his rookie season and Hamilton, despite his defensive prowess and propensity to score runs, getting on base at only a .298 clip during his first four seasons.
But Hamilton scores runs more than 40 percent of the time he reaches base, either being driven in – most often by Joey Votto – or reaching home via an error or by another manner of disruption. Additionally, Hamilton advances into scoring position more than half the time he gets on base, and mostly achieves that on his own.
Price said on Friday that Hamilton will still bat leadoff more often than not. But having Hamilton and Winker in the lineup at the same time could spark some creativity on the manager's part. Price said he’d remain open to having a “second leadoff” hitter at times with Hamilton batting ninth.
“I like the idea of him hitting ahead of Winker after the pitcher,” Price said. “I’ve had him there before with the pitcher hitting eighth ... and the pitcher trying to bunt him over when he can steal a base. Have him getting on base ahead of Winker, Suarez, Votto etc. creates a similar situation where we perhaps get better pitches to hit, get some rushed fastballs for that group. He’ll be hitting leadoff as well. (Ninth) isn’t a spot he’s going to fill for the rest of the year.”
Scherzer didn’t make things easy for any Reds batter on Friday, allowing only four hits with 10 strikeouts, including Winker twice and Hamilton once. Schebler managed one of the Reds’ five hits off the Nationals’ ace.
Hamilton struck out three times on the day and went 0-for-4 in the 2-0 loss.
Prior to Friday, Hamilton had made 73 starts in the No. 9 hole, batting .244 with a .285 on-base percentage, 39 stolen bases and 36 runs. But Hamilton has made 634 starts batting leadoff and he made it clear on Friday that’s where he prefers to hit.
“I feel like I’m a leadoff hitter,” Hamilton said before Friday’s game. “I feel like that’s where I always should be. I have to earn that spot again. I don’t want to come in and have to look for my name (in the lineup). It’s going to be a challenge to get back to the top of the lineup every day. That’s where I want to be.”
Price has had the conversation with all four of his outfielders. All are going to play, with Price saying he’ll go with the lineup that will give the club its best chance to win that day’s game. Price told Duvall on Thursday that his name would not be among the starters announced prior to the 142nd Opening Day game at Great American Ball Park.
“I didn’t want him to show up and look at the lineup and see he’s not in it,” Price said. “This guy has been really good for our team. This isn’t an indictment for any of these guys. Our goal as a team is to attack with our best group.”
Price keeps open the lines of communication with his outfielders, who know where they stand in their manager’s plans. Doesn’t make it any easier for them to prepare on a daily basis in a four-man platoon.
“We’ve got four guys who in my opinion are everyday players,” said Hamilton, who batted .170 during spring training. “It’s going to be tough for players not knowing if you’re going to play. It’s something we have to deal with. We just have to do our job and get better. We have to be ready for it.”
Price said he’ll play the best group according to matchups.
There are many people who argue the Reds’ best group does not have Hamilton hitting in the leadoff spot. If given a choice, Hamilton said he’d prefer to hit ninth rather than eighth, where he can depend on his own feet and instincts rather than hoping the pitcher can lay down a bunt.
“Nine and one,” Hamilton said. “I think I’d rather hit ninth than eighth, to be honest with you. If I get on base before the pitcher … I feel like I’m not able to use my weapons on the bases when the pitcher’s trying to bunt me over. I do like the ninth hole better than the eighth hole, for sure.”
Price indicated that Hamilton would be the only position player on the team that he would bat ninth, for precisely those reasons.
Hamilton also is among the premier center fielders in the game, ranking fourth last season among all center fielders in defensive runs saved, which means he’s going to play regularly.
So, here is Price’s conundrum: Hamilton’s glove and ability to disrupt pitchers with his speed is a unique weapon the Reds would like to keep in the regular lineup, along with the left-handed bats of Schebler and Winker, and Duvall’s power and glove in left field. Schebler hit .233 last season but also belted a career-high 30 homers.
Price managed to play all of his outfielders, including Phillip Ervin, on Friday. But something has to give, whether it be a trade or, Heaven forbid, an injury. As it stands now, where Hamilton bats likely will drive the social media clicks throughout this season. But, that is a subplot to a larger issue for Price .who has four quality pegs to fit into three square holes.
“Coming into the season, I was very confident we would have a four-man combination in the outfield,” Price said. “I have four guys who are regular major-league outfielders. I’m not going to have four guys sitting on the bench for four or five days in a row.
"It comes down to finding, not just the best matchups, but to keep these guys in the mix. Float them around and try to get the best matchups.”