FORT MYERS, Fla. – At this time last March, the three-way competition to be the Twins’ center fielder was already over. Aaron Hicks impressed the Twins from the first day of camp, racked up four home runs and a batting average near .400 by March 7, and seized a major league job without ever spending a day at Class AAA.
The job is up for grabs again this spring, but there is no runaway winner this time. And wow, the Twins sure wish there was.
“No, I don’t think anyone has separated themselves, or helped us make that decision at all yet,” said assistant GM Rob Antony, who along with manager Ron Gardenhire will decide which of four candidates to take north in a little more than two weeks. “You’d always like the players to determine it for you. It’s a little tougher if nobody separates themselves, [merely] does fine but not great. But we haven’t seen anything yet to say anyone is in front.”
With 19 more spring games remaining, there is still plenty of time for the four candidates — Hicks, trying to rebound from a rough rookie campaign, now-healthy Darin Mastroianni, newcomer Alex Presley and long shot Jermaine Mitchell — to make the decision easy for Gardenhire and Antony, and it’s a little unfair to draw any conclusions while players are rarely in the lineup more than one day in a row. But the only center fielder to ignite any fervor in Twins camp so far this spring is the one who wasn’t allowed to enter the competition: Byron Buxton, the 20-year-old phenom who was sent to minor league camp Sunday.
Buxton hit only .158, going 3-for-19, but hit a long home run in his final game and consistently flashed the tools that made him baseball’s top prospect and the early favorite for next year’s center field competition. But with no experience above Class A, and following Hicks’ difficulties in making a big jump, there was never a chance the Twins would give Buxton anything more than a taste of his future.
It must have been tempting, though, because the Twins’ three main contenders for center field are batting a combined .196 (9-for-46) with zero extra-base hits so far in Grapefruit League play.
Mitchell, a 29-year-old journeyman who has spent the past four seasons in Class AAA, is 5-for-10 with a double and a home run this spring, but he is considered organizational depth rather than a likely starter. (Of course, the same could have been said for Clete Thomas a year ago, and he ended up starting 48 games in center for the Twins.) Also a long-shot possibility: veteran Wilkin Ramirez, who has played very little center field over his career.
The candidates themselves, though, don’t sound worried.
“You can look at stats if you want, but I haven’t even had 20 at-bats yet. People here know what I can do. For me, it’s just a matter of getting ready,” said Presley, 28, acquired from Pittsburgh in the Justin Morneau trade last August. Unlike Mastroianni and Hicks, Presley is out of options and would have to pass through waivers in order to be sent to the minors.
Mastroianni, too, is focused on himself and not on his competitors. “I haven’t even thought about it, to be honest. I’m thinking about making sure I’m healthy,” said the 28-year-old, who broke his ankle in the final week of training camp last March, eventually underwent surgery and appeared in only 30 games. “The results haven’t been great yet, but I feel fantastic. My ankle has responded very well, and that’s the most important thing.”
Hicks, 24, has missed the past week because of tightness in his right elbow and has been limited to nine at-bats, or less than a third of what he accounted for at this point last year. The switch hitter, who led the Twins in hits, homers and RBI last spring, is expected to return to the lineup Wednesday.
The competition is particularly visible and critical because the winner, sure to be a speedy fielder with limited power, is also the most likely candidate to lead off for the Twins. Gardenhire, however, made it clear Tuesday he is prepared to find a different leadoff hitter if necessary.
“I could put [second baseman Brian] Dozier up there. [Catcher Kurt] Suzuki can lead off. I can do different things,” Gardenhire said. “You hopefully will have one of those guys, but there’s no guarantee. If it doesn’t look like it works out too well, I’ll go another route.”
But first, they have to decide who’s playing the position that Kirby Puckett, Torii Hunter and Denard Span once manned. That might take a while.
“I don’t think anything’s going to be settled until the last week,” Antony said.