FORT MYERS, FLA. – The Twins knew they were losing quality defensive center fielders when Denard Span and Ben Revere were traded during the offseason. What concerned them just as much was who would assume leadoff duties.
Then they watched Aaron Hicks take strikes with conviction.
Hicks was in his first major league camp, so many Twins players didn’t know him. But they will head for the Twin Cities this weekend to start the regular season as Hicks makes the jump from Class AA New Britain to their new center fielder — and leadoff hitter.
“I’m impressed with Hicks,” first baseman Justin Morneau said. “He handles himself well. He has a lot of confidence, but he is not overconfident.
“You see a lot of guys come up and hit one out of five, maybe two out of five where you hear a good sound coming off the bat. I watched him hit in the cage in Dunedin and he made consistently good contact and I went, ‘Hmm. Maybe this kid’s got something.’ ”
Hicks won over the clubhouse by displaying all five tools throughout the state of Florida while batting .361 this month. He enters Tuesday leading the team with 22 hits, four home runs, 16 RBI and 10 extra-base hits. He chewed up turf in center field while chasing down fly balls, winning a competition that included Joe Benson and Darin Mastroianni.
“I’m just going to do what I can to help the team win,” said Hicks, who will wear uniform No. 32. “See a lot of pitches. Let [Joe] Mauer and Morneau see what the pitcher has.”
His approach — taking pitches, battling through at-bats, not panicking with two strikes — gives the Twins confidence that they have an igniter. He has fallen behind in the count a few times but has rallied to run it full. The more pitches he takes, especially in the first inning, the more information teammates can gather on that day’s opposing starter.
Hicks put on a show Sunday, going 4-for-4 with a double, three runs scored and a RBI during a victory over Toronto. His first three hits all came with two strikes.
“For a young guy to take pitches and work at-bats, it has been pretty impressive,” said Mauer, the hitting savant. “Even [Sunday], I talked to him and said, ‘If you take pitches it will help the guys behind you.’ He has a pretty good grasp of how to approach an at-bat. He’s had a heck of spring and I’m happy for him.”
Taking pitches is a skill Hicks has showed since the Twins selected him with the 14th overall pick in the 2008 draft. He entered the year with a career .371 on-base percentage in the minors. He has walked 79, 78 and 88 times the past three seasons. Last season, his game began to come together while at Class AA New Britain, batting .286 with 21 doubles, 13 triples, 13 homers and 61 RBI in 129 games. A switch-hitter, he’s more confident with his lefthanded swing and began to drive the ball a little more.
But the foundation of his game is working the count.
“The way I take my at-bats, the way I go about hitting, is great for a leadoff hitter,” Hicks said. “That is where I am comfortable at, and that is where I want to be.”