FORT MYERS, FLA.
Hall of Famer Rod Carew, who has taken young Aaron Hicks under his wing, was asked how the mentorship went during the offseason.
“Did he tell you that I chewed him out?” Carew said.
No, but go on.
“I called him and I chewed him out,” Carew said. “I just told him, ‘We talked about it last spring. Don’t try to get there and do too much. Just get your feet wet and do what you are doing. The next thing I know, I’m watching you on TV and you are trying to hit the ball nine miles. I’ll be on you all spring.’ ”
One of the keys to the Twins’ improvement this season will be how Hicks, their first-round pick in 2008, rebounds after a rough and tumble rookie season that saw him bat .192 with eight home runs and 27 RBI in 81 games. Known for good plate discipline as he rose through the minor leagues, Hicks walked only 24 times while striking out 84. That led to a ticket to Class AAA Rochester on Aug. 1.
“It seemed like everything I swung at wasn’t a good pitch and everything I took was a strike,” Hicks said.
So it was back to class with Carew.
Hicks spent the offseason driving from his home in Long Beach, Calif., to meet with Carew at San Juan Capistrano. There, they worked in the cage on his swing and approach.
“Trying to get him back to where he was last spring,” Carew said.
Last spring, Hicks batted .370 with four homers — three coming in one game against Philadelphia — to make the decision to bring him north an easy one. This year, Hicks has to earn his way onto the Opening Day roster, and that is not a lock.
The Twins are prepared to look at Alex Presley and Darin Mastroianni in center if Hicks has a poor spring. If Hicks, 24, wins the job and is productive, it will be a huge relief to a Twins team that needs his range and arm in center and his switch-hitting ability at the plate.
The Twins know he has the ability. He flashed it May 13 when he hit two home runs and stole a home run from White Sox slugger Adam Dunn. He flashed it again July 14 when he crushed a three-run homer off Yankees ace CC Sabathia. But Hicks has to bring his tools to the field more consistently.
Even defensively, there were some balls he pulled up on last season that he could have made a play on. Twins manager Ron Gardenhire ripped into him during a May 7 game in Boston when Hicks nonchalantly flipped a ball back into the infield after catching a sinking fly ball. It was a rough baptism. Now he has to prove he is a better man for going through it.
“You know what, it was a great learning experience for him,” Gardenhire said. “Now we move past that, we learn from that and we go right to this year and let him have some fun, get out there and play baseball. We’ll see where we’re at the end of spring training.”
With Oswaldo Arcia showing promise last season and megaprospect Byron Buxton moving through the system, the Twins outfield of the near-future could be forming.
“I definitely feel a lot more confident,” Hicks said. “I’m more ready. The fact that I know what it’s like to be in the big leagues and what you need to do on a daily basis to be successful. I figure that if I do what I need to do I’ll be fine.”
One thing he needs to do is listen to Carew and apply his teachings.
“He’s got so much talent,” Carew said. “I said, ‘People expect a lot of you because of what they hear but don’t go to people’s expectations. Stay with your expectations. Let things creep before you walk.’ He wanted to jump out there and do things instead of staying within himself. It’s a typical young player.”