FORT MYERS, FLA. - Like most interested observers of the Twins, Josh Willingham was floored by General Manager Terry Ryan's decision to trade both Denard Span and Ben Revere last December. But the lumbering left fielder said he had another reaction to the moves, too.
"I looked at that as my opportunity to play center," Willingham deadpanned. "Always wanted to play center field."
Great. Yet another candidate.
OK, Willingham was joking. But like everyone else, he is intrigued by this spring's open competition to play next to him in the Target Field outfield this season, one of the most critical and certainly the most visible decision the Twins must make about their roster and their lineup over the next six weeks. The winner, after all, probably will lead off against Justin Verlander on Opening Day.
That's no easy task, but the Twins have a wide variety of petitioners hoping to take on the challenge. Trouble is, none of them ever has attempted anything this daunting.
"You tell yourself it's just baseball, it's no different than what I've been doing all my life. But the truth is, the big leagues are different," said Darin Mastroianni, the 27-year-old holdover whose five games of major league experience in center field make him the most experienced of the three top candidates. "It's exciting. A little nerve-racking. If I wasn't a little nervous about it, I'd be even more concerned."
Twins fans are a little nervous, too, because they are conditioned to expect excellence in center field. Kirby Puckett, Torii Hunter and Span rank among the best and most popular players in franchise history, and Revere became renowned for his incredible catches. Ryan resisted the urge to pursue a free-agent stopgap such as Scott Podsednik or Endy Chavez or an expensive solution such as Hunter or Michael Bourn.
"We felt like we have players in our system who are ready, or close to it, to grab the position and make it their own," Ryan said last month. "Now it's a matter of which one will do it."
That competition opened Saturday and figures to continue for six weeks. Three veterans with limited major league experience -- Wilkin Ramirez, Clete Thomas and Brandon Boggs -- will get an audition, but the winner is far more likely to emerge from a trio of compelling candidates: the Utility Man, the Comeback and the Prospect. Better known as Mastroianni, Joe Benson and Aaron Hicks.
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Mastroianni is in the odd position of being both the favorite in the competition, for representing a relatively sure thing, and the underdog, for lacking the thrilling upside of Benson and Hicks. A former 16th-round draft pick by the Blue Jays -- "I'm nobody's idea of a prospect," he said humbly -- he spent five months with the Twins last season as the fourth outfielder, frequently entering games as a pinch runner or defensive replacement, and stole 21 bases while batting .252.
"I love the way he goes about the game. He studies the game. A hard-nosed guy, has no fear on the basepaths," said manager Ron Gardenhire, who was quick to note that Mastroianni was once an infielder and can fill in at second base. "Definitely the kind of guy I like to watch play baseball."
Then there's Benson, the Twins' second-round pick in 2006 who believed he was on the verge of a breakthrough in 2012 -- but ended up broken instead. A fractured hamate bone in his wrist cost him the first half of his season, microfracture surgery in a knee cost him the second, and in between he batted only .202 in the minor leagues, a performance that got him demoted from Class AAA Rochester to Class AA New Britain last May.
"I couldn't wait for 2012 to be done. Not just the season, but the offseason. I've been down here pretty much since the beginning of September, trying to get the knee right," said Benson, who will turn 25 on March 5. "It's over, it's behind me, it's done with, and I'm ready to start fresh in 2013."
Despite the setbacks, Benson remains an extraordinary athlete, a so-called five-tool player who has launched some of the longest home runs in the Twins minor league system.
"This is a big year for him," Ryan said. "He's getting to the point in his career where he's probably getting a little impatient. We've had him a long time. He's got a good skill set -- there isn't anyone in camp with that whole package of skills."
Well, there might be one: Hicks.
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A first-round pick in 2008, Hicks has ranked among the top prospects in baseball for years. He played basketball and football growing up in Long Beach, Calif., and once was a scratch golfer. But he chose baseball and, after a few encouraging seasons in the lower minors, last year at New Britain finally provided the star-level production that the Twins expected.
With 21 doubles, 11 triples and 13 home runs, Hicks was a terror at the plate. He also walked 79 times and stole 32 bases, while mastering the ability to run down long fly balls. It's not hard to picture Hicks energizing the fan base the way Span did when he seized the job in 2009, and he's the most likely candidate to extend Minnesota's Puckett-Hunter-Span genealogy at the position for years to come.
"He's a big, strong guy with a great arm, a lot of speed and real smart approach at the plate," said Mike Radcliff, the team's vice president for player personnel. "It's been a real pleasure to see him put it all together and put himself in this position."
Trouble is, the 23-year-old has never seen a Class AAA fastball, much less a major league curve. The Twins are noted for their patient approach to developing position players, so skipping Rochester, as no Twin has done since Joe Mauer, would be unusual.
"It has to be a special situation a lot of times. We've been very good at letting people develop, but this is a unique situation and opportunity for them," Gardenhire said. "Competition is fun. It's going to be entertaining seeing who ends up stepping out and winning this job."
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Let's skip to the end: Who's it going to be?
Mastroianni would be the safe choice, especially if the Twins decide Benson and Hicks need another month or two in the minors. (Contract considerations could come into play, too; by delaying Hicks' debut until May or June, the Twins could push back his first arbitration-eligible season to 2016 instead of 2015, and he would be eligible for free agency after the 2019 season at the earliest, instead of 2018.)
Hicks would be the exciting choice, given all the attention he has attracted since being drafted. And Benson, who batted .231 without a homer in a 21-game look-see with the Twins in September 2011, would be an intriguing choice, given his boom-or-bust streakiness and ability to add power to the lineup.
Mastroianni, whom Ryan praises for his persistence in improving to the point where "he proved he belonged in the majors," nevertheless understands how intense the competition could become. Heck, he practically endorses the other guys.
"Aaron has gotten so much more confident. He realizes the ability he has and he's starting to put it all together. Same with Joe -- he's a physical specimen, really a freak athlete," Mastroianni said. "People should be excited about those guys. They've got fantastic talent."
Now they've got to show it.
"It's all on their shoulders," Gardenhire said. "If we think Hicksie's ready or Benson's ready to do this, fine. Or if Mastroianni is ready to be an every-day center fielder, fine. They'll tell us. Players decide, they always have."