CHICAGO – If you haven’t heard, the Twins have a fine center field prospect. The kid can run, throw, hit and draw walks. He can drive the ball and track it down, and contrary to most projections, he should be able to help the big-league team this year.
Byron Buxton? No, the best prospect in baseball is starting the minor league season on the disabled list and isn’t expected to reach Target Field until late this season at the earliest.
The fine young center fielder who can help the team this year is the same guy who dragged it down last year. Aaron Hicks might be the Twins’ most pivotal player.
So while Monday represented Opening Day for 24 Twins, for Hicks it was Closing Time. Time to forget the angst of 2013; time to enact lessons learned.
“Ever since Day 1 in spring training, he knew that it wasn’t his job,” second baseman Brian Dozier said. “He had to prove himself and win the job. He did that. He’s more ears-open this year, he’s listening more. Not just at the plate but when it comes to his approach, and defensively, and being an all-around professional. He’s gotten a lot better since last year.”
What’s funny is that at this time last year, Hicks was the Twins’ most promising player. Then he faced Justin Verlander on Opening Day at Target Field. He might still be recovering.
Monday, Hicks went 2-for-3 with a double and made a running catch in the Twins’ 5-3 loss to the White Sox. If it seems as if Hicks already has matched his 2013 hit total, well, that’s not far off.
Last year, Hicks didn’t hit a double until April 27. He didn’t have a two-hit game until May 13. He hit .192 to become the latest unpaid spokesman for the Public Service Announcement that reminds baseball fans not to believe anything they see in spring training.
“I just want to get off to a good start,” Hicks said. “It’s a pretty good start, but it’s a long season. It feels good when you get those two hits [Monday]. Makes you feel more comfortable when you go into the next game.”
Hicks’ minor league résumé indicates a patient approach yielding a high on-base percentage. That, combined with his speed, makes him the Twins’ logical leadoff hitter.
Monday, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire placed Hicks eighth in the order. To do so, he had to elevate light-hitting catcher Kurt Suzuki to the second spot in the lineup, and lead off with Dozier, who has a woeful career on-base percentage of .297.
Strategically, it’s a terrible way to concoct a lineup. Emotionally, it might help the Twins’ most important young position player. Monday, Suzuki produced all three of the Twins’ RBI and Hicks swung freely, so for a day batting Hicks near the bottom of the order seemed to work.
“I don’t want him putting any kind of pressure on himself at the top of the order right now,” Gardenhire said. “I just want him to swing. Get his swings in and play the game. … Get himself comfortable and get off to a good start.”
Last year, Hicks prided himself so much on a “patient” approach that he often fell behind in the count and was forced to swing defensively, a terrible pattern for a young hitter.
Monday, batting from the right side against White Sox lefty Chris Sale, Hicks looked more interested in driving the ball than hoping for a walk.
“Hitting eighth, I guess, takes a lot off of me,” Hicks said. “I can come up and take a pitch and try to drive guys in.”
For a rebuilding team, the Twins are giving at-bats to a lot of players they don’t expect to be around long. Of the nine players in the lineup Monday, only Joe Mauer, Oswaldo Arcia, Hicks and perhaps Dozier are expected to be regulars when the coming transformation is complete.
The best thing about Hicks is that he remains promising at 24. The worst thing about Hick is that he’s 24, and still just promising.
“In spring training, he was a lot more confident, he was a different player and hopefully he continues that,” Gardenhire said of Hicks.
“He’s a good player. We have a lot of faith in him and we need him to play well. Good start [Monday].”
Jim Souhan can be heard weekdays at noon and Sundays from 10 to noon on 1500 ESPN. His Twitter name is @SouhanStrib. • firstname.lastname@example.org