FORT MYERS, FLA. – It’s not the five home runs that have made Aaron Hicks the runaway front-runner to start in center field on Opening Day, though they obviously catch your attention. No, says Terry Ryan, it’s some of the less-spectacular moments that register with the team’s scouts, coaches and manager.
“He also stole a base [Thursday] off a lefthander, which is interesting. Lefthanders are tough to read; well, he got a good read on him,” the Twins general manager said. “Those are the things I’m looking for. ... I’m looking at the broken-bat [single] he got the two RBIs on, the tough at-bat with the infield in. He was strong enough to get it over the second baseman.”
Ryan, manager Ron Gardenhire and the Twins front office aren’t ready to concede open jobs to anyone yet, not with training camp just reaching its midway point. Heck, they haven’t even cut a player yet. But with 23 days gone since the team’s first workout, and 23 days remaining before the Tigers visit Target Field, the competition an answer each of the team’s most pressing questions has begun to take shape. A brief look at each:
Center field: The three-way battle got the most attention before camp opened, and Hicks has made sure that Twins fans talk about little else. Hitting five home runs in four games, including three against the Phillies on Thursday, add an unexpected element to his case, but the 23-year-old former first-round pick was impressing the Twins even before the outburst.
“I like that he waits for his pitch, that he’s willing to take a walk. He’s very disciplined,” Gardenhire said.
Oddly, though, while Hicks has gone deep into several counts, he has walked only once, in an exhibition game against Puerto Rico. But midway through camp, Hicks is batting .407 and leads the team — and the Grapefruit League — in RBI with 12.
“He’s a pretty laid-back kid, but he’s into the baseball games,” Gardenhire said. “He’s paying attention.”
Joe Benson hasn’t been able to reduce his tendency to strike out; his 11 are most on the Twins, and he has only three hits this spring. And Darin Mastroianni, the veteran of the three, has been sidelined because of a hamstring injury.
“I’m anxious to get Mastroianni back out there so he can start showing what he’s capable of doing,” Ryan said.
There’s plenty of time for Benson and Mastroianni to make their case, too, but for the moment, the job looks like Hicks’ to lose. Ryan made it clear that if Hicks keeps his lead, the Twins won’t try to manipulate his service time (and delay his eligibility for salary arbitration and free agency by a year) by sending him to Class AAA temporarily.
Middle infield: After his fielding didn’t satisfy Gardenhire at shortstop last year, Brian Dozier knew that his glovework would be critical to his effort at winning the second-base job. So far, so good, Gardenhire said this week.
“He looks so much more comfortable over there,” the manager said. “He looks like he’s taking the bull by the horns at second base.”
Left unsaid is the fact that Dozier hasn’t hit like the Twins expected yet, leaving the possibility open that Jamey Carroll or Eduardo Escobar could take the position. Dozier’s batting average is below .200, and both of the other candidates, considered steadier with the glove, have outhit him. Dozier remains the favorite, but his improvement in the field isn’t enough to keep him there if he doesn’t hit.
As for shortstop, Gardenhire remains impressed with Pedro Florimon, who appears steadier in the field than he did with the Twins last September. And his efforts to cut down on his strikeouts have paid off so far.
“He’s going good. I’m just kind of leaving him alone,” the manager said.
Carroll and Escober remain in play at this position, too, but Florimon has yet to give the Twins any reason to doubt him.
Starting rotation: It will be another week before the Twins care much about whether their pitching staff is getting anyone out.
“We’re happy about their health,” pitching coach Rick Anderson said. “It’s too early to worry about results.”
If that’s the case, the Twins have received mostly good news. Mike Pelfrey, Vance Worley and Kyle Gibson all show no effects of their various surgeries, and Scott Diamond is only a few weeks behind. If that stays true, it’s possible that those four, along with Kevin Correia, form the Twins rotation. Gibson was pounded by the Phillies for six runs and eight hits in 2⅓ innings this week, but his first two outings were more encouraging; the Twins could still choose to start him in Rochester if Cole De Vries or P.J. Walters continue their strong spring.
“We’re doing things with a purpose, but it’s way to early to start deducting just because of how things look today,” Ryan said. “At this point, people really aren’t throwing breaking balls much. They aren’t doing anything to try to get people out.”
Is he forming any initial opinions? “I’m not in that phase yet,” Ryan said.