March 7, 2013; Clearwater, FL, USA; Minnesota Twins center fielder Aaron Hicks (63) is congratulated by manager Ron Gardenhire (35) after he hit a solo home run during the fifth inning against the Philadelphia Phillies at Bright House Networks Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
The spring began with a three-man competition between Hicks, Joe Benson and Darin Mastroianni for the starting center field job. Benson struggled and was cut last week. Mastroianni has put up comparable–and in some ways arguably better– numbers compared to Hicks.
Hicks posted a .304/.359/.607 triple slash line for a .967 OPS coming into last night’s game. He also had 15 strikeouts to six walks. Mastroianni posted a .364/.421/.515 line for .936 OPS with five strikeouts to three walks. Hicks stole three bases, Mastroianni seven. Three of Hicks’ team-leading four home runs came in one game.
Beyond a straight-up stat line comparison, a couple of other factors may have played into this decision. Brandon Boggs has been less-than-stellar in vying for the fourth outfielder spot, and Mastroianni will presumably return to that role in 2013. Brian Dozier has recently improved his hitting and plate discipline, perhaps giving the Twins confidence that they can place two young hitters at the top of the batting order.
It was never really in doubt that Hicks was the heir apparent in center field after a very strong 2012 in AA New Britain, but there were questions whether or not the Twins would start him in AAA to begin the season. His plus-plus arm and defense are expected to play exceptionally well in Target Field, but he’ll have to show plate discipline closer to his minor league track record than the numbers he put up this spring.
I’m fully confident at this point that Hicks is the real deal; his defense and ability to draw walks should allow him to succeed at the MLB level even if he struggles out of the gate hitting against better-than-AA pitchers. Recent history has shown, however, that successful Twins center fielders have had ups and downs–both in performance and between AAA and the Twins–before settling into consistent production.
Regardless, Hicks has the all-around game to potentially be the Twins most dynamic center fielder since Kirby Puckett, and his track record suggest he is the type of pure leadoff hitter this team has sorely lacked. I, for one, just got a whole hell of a lot more excited for the game I’m going to in just over a week.