FORT MYERS, Fla. — Alex Presley’s locker at Hammond Stadium happens to be next to Byron Buxton, the Minnesota Twins’ center fielder of the future. But until Buxton arrives in the major leagues, Presley could very well be the Twins’ center fielder of the present.
Minnesota acquired Presley last August in a deal with Pittsburgh that sent longtime Twins first baseman Justin Morneau to the Pirates in exchange for Presley and a player to be named later. The Twins wasted no time seeing what Presley could do in center field. He played in 28 games in the final month of the season and batted .283 with 11 RBI during that stretch.
His first trial run with Minnesota was brief, but also a relative success. Presley is hoping he can make a strong case for himself this spring with a roster spot on the line.
"I view it as mine. I don’t know any other way to view it," Presley said of the starting center field job. "I expect to take it and take advantage of my opportunity. I don’t really know another way to look at it, honestly. Healthy competition’s good for everybody to get better. Not many scenarios where you don’t have a little competition going on at some point."
While Presley may see it as his job to lose, that doesn’t mean anything will be a handed to him in spring. The Twins remain high on 24-year-old outfielder Aaron Hicks, who was handed the center field job out of camp last spring but struggled at the plate throughout the 2013 season. He’s still in the mix for that job, as is outfielder Darin Mastroianni, who struggled with injuries this past year.
Though it was only a one-month sample size, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire liked what he saw from Presley during the 28-year-old outfielder’s short stint in Minnesota last September.
"He did all the little things good. Good swing, really a nice approach at the plate. Gets the bat head to the ball an awful lot," Gardenhire said. "So we like him. That’s a good pickup by us."
There’s one thing that Minnesota hopes to see more of from Pressly this spring: aggression on the base paths. Pressly got on base 40 times in 28 games with the Twins but stole just one base. He was thrown out trying to steal three times.
Throughout his career, Presley’s stolen base numbers have never jumped off the page. In 232 big league games, Presley has 20 steals and has been caught stealing 15 times. His season high for stolen bases in a minor league season was 22 in 2011.
Since the beginning of spring, Presley has worked with Hall of Famer Paul Molitor on baserunning with the hope of becoming a more aggressive player on the base paths.
"The part that he’s going to have to get better at to be able to do that consistently is run," Gardenhire said. "He’s going to have to have no fear. Right now he’s a little hesitant. He was last year at the end. That’ll probably change as we go through spring training because we’re going to go, go, go. We’ll see what happens here. Pick out some spots and run."
Presley knows his aggression on the bases could be the deciding factor in him earning a starting job. He batted leadoff in every game he started in September, and Minnesota may need him to fill that leadoff role again. Presley has shown an ability to get on base; it’s what he does after he gets on base that the Twins hope will change.
"That’s going to be big for the leadoff guy for this team to be aggressive on the bases and get into scoring position," Presley said. "If they see some more aggressiveness from me stealing bases and stuff like that, I think that’ll go a long way."
After spending the better part of eight seasons in the Pirates’ organization, it was tough for Presley to say goodbye to his teammates and friends in Pittsburgh — a playoff team in 2013 — to join a struggling Twins club. But now that he’s settled into his new home and his new role, Presley is embracing life in Minnesota.
That doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a trip to Bradenton, the spring training home of the Pirates, circled on his calendar. The Twins travel there on Friday — not that Presley is counting or anything.
"When is that, Friday?" he asked jokingly. "I could give you the exact day. It’ll be fun to go back to see those guys."