FORT MYERS, Fla. – Aaron Hicks appears next in line to assume the Minnesota Twins center field position, a spot that has been held on Opening Day by just eight men in the past 27 years.
Hicks, 23, hopes to fall more in line with Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett, who eight times started in center between 1985 and 1995, and Torii Hunter, who started nine straight years from 1999-07, than some of the stopgap players at that spot (Rich Becker in 1994, ’96-97, Otis Nixon in ’98 and Carlos Gomez in 2008-09).
What began this spring training as an open competition among Hicks, Darin Mastroianni and Joe Benson has turned into what most certainly, barring injury or a surprise, will result in Hicks winning the job and Mastroianni landing the fourth outfielder’s role.
Benson, who missed much of last season with a broken bone in his hand and a knee injury, needs to play every day, Twins general manager Terry Ryan said, and may end up at Triple-A Rochester.
“Earn a spot,” Ryan said of his goal for Hicks. “That means playing strong defense in center field. Getting on base. Quality at-bats. Production. Making the plays. Nothing outstanding. Just doing the job.”
Hicks, however, has been outstanding in his first 11 games of spring training. Halfway through the Grapefruit League schedule, Hicks is batting .342 (13-for-38) with four home runs and 13 RBI. His hits, homers and RBI are all team highs.
Hicks has a career .379 on-base percentage in the minor leagues, a mark that makes him the top candidate to bat leadoff as well. He has hit in the leadoff spot his entire minor league career as well as at Woodrow Wilson High School in Long Beach, Calif., from which the Twins selected him with the 14th overall pick in the first round of the 2008 draft.
“He’s a prototype there,” manager Ron Gardenhire said. “He’s a center fielder, a switch hitter. He’s not afraid to take pitches. We’ve seen him in the minor leagues take some walks. We’ll see what happens. I don’t know how it’s going to work out here. But I’m putting him out there. I’m getting him plenty of at-bats because I haven’t seen him much. He’s getting more at-bats. Whether he can handle the leadoff role or not, I haven’t decided that, but I’m not afraid of that. I think he’s making his way right toward that. He’s fun to watch.”
Last season at Double-A New Britain, Hicks stole 32 bases in 43 attempts, his best mark in the minors. He hit .286 with 13 home runs and 61 RBI, the latter two figures also career bests. Hicks said he began working with a track coach after stealing 17 bases in 26 attempts for the Class A Fort Myers Miracle in 2011.
“I want to get 40 or 50 steals,” Hicks said of one of his goals for this season. “It all depends on the chances I’m getting for stealing. I’m pretty sure I’ll be out there with the green light. So I’m going to have to take advantage of it.”
Hicks has just one stolen base so far this spring training, although it’s tough to steal more bases when you’re hitting home runs.
“Spring training is definitely the time to steal bags,” Hicks said. “You can really test yourself on how far of a lead you can get. Guys are getting their swings in, and you’ve got to hit the ball hard. You can really test yourself on your limits.”
The Twins traded two leadoff hitters and outfielders during the offseason in Ben Revere and Denard Span. Hicks, Mastroianni, 27, and Benson, 25, all took note of those trades.
“They made it very clear that they wanted someone in-house to take over that role,” Mastroianni said. “One of the three of us has to step up and take that job. I’m a little bit older. I’m not old. But you’ve got guys who are 23 and 25 years old who might have higher ceilings.”
Mastroianni indicated at this stage of his career, with 78 big-league games on his resume and at his age, he would be content just to make the team as a backup.
“Coming into camp, my whole goal is I want Gardy to feel comfortable putting me into the lineup, whether it’s as the center fielder or as the fourth outfielder,” he said. “I don’t want him to just see me as a guy who can come off the bench and run and play defense. I want him to see me as a baseball player. So if he needs me to play right one day, or left, or center, he feels comfortable with me in the lineup. I want him to trust that when he puts me out there, that I can help this team win.”
Mastroianni hit .252 with three homers, 17 RBI and 21 stolen bases in the big leagues for the Twins last season. In 2009, Mastroianni stole a combined 70 bases at Class A Dunedin and Double-A New Hampshire while with the Toronto Blue Jays organization.
“I think I caught a lot of people off guard last year, just not knowing who I was coming up,” Mastroianni said. “I wasn’t a name that was really recognized. As the season progressed, teams started to realize that I was trying to run. They did more to try and shut me down. They took that way from me a little bit, like trying to steal third base.
“Teams aren’t going to let me run. They’re going to try and shut me down, so it’s going to be a little bit of a grind. I just have to pick my spots.”
Benson realized he would be a long shot to break camp with the team when he spent most of the offseason rehabilitating from surgery to remove bone chips from his left knee.
“It was definitely very interesting to watch it all unfold,” Benson said of the Twins trading Span and Revere for pitching prospects with the Nationals and Phillies. “When everything happened, I was still in the middle of my rehab. So I knew that nothing really changed on my side of things. I also had to wake up every morning and tend to my knee and get healthy. My first responsibility was my knee.
“I feel 100 percent.”
Benson played 21 games in the big leagues for the Twins in 2011, hitting .239 with two RBI and two stolen bases.
“It was awesome to get up there,” Benson said. “It was a great experience. I got to see a lot of great competition at that level. Hopefully I can learn from that and learn from last year.”
Benson said he recognized the numbers game at his position.
“I leave that to those in the front office, decisions like that,” Benson said. “But yes, I’d like to play every day. Ultimately, I think everybody in this clubhouse would like to break with the big-league team. But obviously, with the business side of everything, not everyone can. I’d like to play every day, but if not, I’ll go with the role they give me.
“I’d like to think I provide a little bit of everything, some speed on the basepaths and out in the outfield. Solid defense at the corner outfield and in center field. At the plate, obviously I want to develop a little more consistency. I’ve hit everywhere from leadoff to the nine-hole. It’s been most of the time between three and six. None of that matters. After the first inning, you can come up as the leadoff hitter or come up in RBI situations.”