MINNEAPOLIS — When Aaron Hicks heard the news that Minnesota center fielder Denard Span had been traded to Washington, he was sad to see his friend and mentor leave the Twins organization. At the same time, he also saw an opportunity — especially as fellow outfielder Ben Revere was traded not long after.
As Minnesota dealt away its two center fielders this offseason to acquire pitching, the Twins did so fully knowing that the organization has perhaps more depth in the outfield than at any other position. That includes the 23-year-old Hicks, the team’s first-round pick back in 2008.
This spring will be a big one for Hicks, who spent 2012 in Double-A New Britain and has yet to play any higher during his five years with the Twins’ organization. But as Minnesota looks to fill the center field role, Hicks knows it’s a job that could be his when the season starts.
“All the talk has been about a spot being open,” Hicks said this weekend at TwinsFest. “For me, I’m going to try to go there and just work hard, try to get it. That’s been my plan for a while, since I found out about the trades. That’s what I’m trying to do.”
Minnesota’s front office was pleased with the progress Hicks made in 2012 after a down year in 2011 with High-A Fort Myers. At New Britain, Hicks batted .286, hit a career-high 13 home runs and stole 32 bases — also a career best. He continued to show patience at the plate, too, drawing 79 walks with a .374 on-base percentage.
As one of the Twins’ top prospects and the outfield prospect closest to major league readiness, Hicks is in a small group who will be vying for that center field spot. He’ll be in competition with Darin Mastroianni, who got his feet wet with the Twins last year as a fourth outfielder, and Joe Benson, who made his MLB debut in 2011 but struggled with injuries in the minors in 2012. But Mastroianni has just five games of experience in center field, and Benson spent just two games in center field during his brief stint with the Twins in 2011.
When camp opens in a few weeks, it will be the first time Hicks will enter spring training with a realistic shot to make the big league roster. No pressure, of course.
“I think one thing I know how to do is kind of make these guys relax a little and try to keep them as light as we possibly can,” Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said of Hicks. “There’s a pressure out there that I can’t control, and that’s him trying to make this baseball team. I can control how he handles himself, and I can try to keep him as relaxed as I possibly can with the rest of our staff and try not to put too much pressure on him. He knows what’s at stake. Now it’s going to be how he handles it.”
Hicks will have a chance to make an impression on Gardenhire, who holds Hicks’ fate in his hands. Making a good impression starts at TwinsFest this weekend, but it will continue down in Fort Myers in a few weeks.
“As far as I know, he’s just a jokester in my mind. He’s a guy that likes to have fun and likes his players,” Hicks said.
Part of making a good impression may mean Hicks has to laugh at all of Gardenhire’s jokes, too.
“Even if I don’t get them,” Hicks said.
If Hicks can make the Twins’ roster, there’s a chance he’d not only be the team’s starting center fielder but also Minnesota’s leadoff hitter. That title was held mostly by Span over the past several years. Hicks’ patience at the plate makes him an ideal candidate for a leadoff hitter, a role he served for most of his minor league career.
Among the plenty of question marks facing the Twins this spring, finding a solid leadoff hitter has to be high on the list.
“We just want to see their swings and we’ve got to figure that out,” Gardenhire said of possible leadoff hitters. “It’s no secret. We’ve got to find top-of-the-order guys and what’s going to best work. We’ll get down to spring training and see how they handle the bats and we’ll go from there.”
Hicks knows he could gain some knowledge and experience by playing at Triple-A and facing a better caliber of pitching than he did at Double-A, but it’s possible he may not need any more seasoning in the minors before he’s major league-ready. The Twins have promoted players from Double-A to the majors in recent years, including Chris Parmelee and Joe Benson late in the 2011 season.
In just a few weeks, Hicks will try to follow in the footsteps of past Twins center fielders who all passed down the tricks of the trade to the next guy. The late Kirby Puckett was a mentor to Torii Hunter, who became a mentor to Span, who in turn showed Hicks the ropes.
Could Hicks be the next in line? He sure hopes so.
“Yeah, it excites me a lot. Just look at that lineup. Those guys have all been mentored by the guy in front of them,” Hicks said. “Me being mentored by Denard Span definitely means I’m the next one in line. Again, I’ve still got to get to the big leagues. I’ve still got to put my place in as a big league center fielder.”