Twins prospect Aaron Hicks hopes to step right into the Puckett-Hunter-Span lineage in center field.
Twins mythology holds that Kirby Puckett begat Torii Hunter, who tutored Denard Span, thus producing an unbroken two-decade line of popular, amiable stars who patrolled center field with impeccable grace. History, however, reminds us of the Alex Cole experiment, the Rich Becker eddy, the Carlos Gomez roller-coaster.
Aaron Hicks understandably hopes to join the legend, not the footnotes. And he believes he's got the credentials.
"It excites me a lot. Look at that line -- those guys have all been mentored by the guy in front of them," the Twins' 2007 first-round pick said Friday. "Me being mentored by Denard means I'm the next one in line. But I've still got to get to the big leagues, still have to earn my place."
That's become a lot better bet in the past 12 months. A breakout 2012 season at Class AA New Britain gave the Twins the confidence to trade both Span and Ben Revere for pitching prospects last month, leaving no obvious candidate to occupy Target Field's vast center field next spring. Darin Mastroianni has played five games in center field -- making him the most experienced player at the position on the Twins' roster.
It could hardly be more obvious, then, that General Manager Terry Ryan wants Hicks, who turned 23 this offseason, to seize the job this spring. Only one problem: He never has spent a day in Triple-A, and the Twins are notoriously cautious with their prospects.
Sounds like they might be ready to make an exception, however, something they haven't done since Joe Mauer came up a decade ago.
"Hicks is very capable," Ryan said. "It's just a matter of whether or not he's ready. He hasn't had an at-bat at Triple-A, but that isn't going to sidetrack our opinion that he might be able to jump over Triple-A."
When Hicks attended TwinsFest a year ago, that notion would have sounded absurd. The switch-hitter was coming off a disappointing season at Class A Fort Myers (.242, five home runs). Twins scouts saw him as immature and wondered about his focus. After all, growing up, Hicks played football and basketball and was a scratch golfer, living just 20 minutes from Tiger Woods' southern California hometown.
"As a kid, Aaron never had baseball as his No. 1 priority. He didn't grow up with being center fielder for the Dodgers as his dream," said Mike Radcliff, the Twins vice president for player personnel. "It was never a concern of ours, but it meant you had to wait for him to gain what we call a sense of urgency. It's not unusual; it's part of the maturation process, and it happens at different times for different guys."
For Hicks, it happened last year. He grew serious about turning his natural gifts into production at the plate, about developing a routine that would make him less streaky, more steady.
"It just seemed like it just clicked," he said. "It's not really a feeling you have; it just comes out of nowhere. I just knew what I was doing up there at the plate. It felt like every time I went up there, I had a plan. Before, I was just hacking away."
His plan produced a .286 batting average plus 79 walks, showing the plate discipline of a veteran. He stole 32 bases, mashed 13 homers, and lived up to the Puckett-Hunter-Span legacy with his glove.
"It was a transformation. He was a different guy," Radcliff said. "You hope it's going to come, you monitor it, encourage it, but you never know. In the middle of last year, we saw that this guy finally gets it, he's totally committed. He understands that this is his career and a potentially lucrative one, and he really gets it now."
Which makes this spring important -- but perhaps not critical. The Twins want Hicks to make the team this year, but they're confident it's only a matter of time.
"Normally you want to downplay spring training stats [because] you can get a false positive in that limited number of at-bats," Radcliff said. "But in this case, it's a little different. This truly is a big venue for him to show if he can handle it. It's not going to be because he went 3-for-5, or hit .400 in the spring. It'll be more subtle -- he took a good at-bat, he took an outside pitch, he wasn't overmatched by a guy throwing 95 miles per hour. Honestly, I can't wait to see how he responds."
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