Most Twins fans will recall that Torii Hunter was a vital part of Minnesota's turnaround and success in the 2000s, from his breakout season in '01 through his departure in '07.
It's a little tougher to remember the beginning of Hunter's major-league career, which was far less glamorous. After drawing a handful of appearances with the Twins in 1997 and '98, Hunter made the full-time leap as a 22-year-old in 1999. During his first two seasons, he hit .267/.313/.393 with 14 homers in 234 games. He was demoted back to Triple-A in his second year. He looked overwhelmed.
Hunter rebounded after returning from his demotion in 2000, raising his OPS from .543 in late July to .726 at season's end. Since then, he has never finished with a mark below .762. He's been above .800 nine times (so far) and appeared in five All-Star games (so far).
In other words, Aaron Hicks shouldn't get too dispirited over his rocky big-league debut in 2013.
To be fair, Hicks' numbers (.192/.259/.338) are much uglier than Hunter's during his initial rough patch. However, Hunter was playing in a stronger offensive environment, so in context the difference is not as vast as it might appear (Hunter's OPS+ was 76; Hicks finished last year at 65).
Both Hunter and Hicks entered the majors as athletic young center fielders with great promise. Both exhibited the type of tentative plate approach and proneness to mistakes that are typical of inexperienced rookies. So Hunter's ability to endure and put together a hell of a career should serve as an inspiration for Hicks and a placation for disenchanted fans.
Then again, while the situations are similar in a general sense, there are certainly more red flags in the case of Hicks.
Whereas Hunter was a visibly raw specimen who had struggled at times with controlling the strike zone in the minors, Hicks was touted as a polished product. But during his initial stint in the majors, his plate discipline -- a calling card throughout the minors -- was nowhere to be found. The rookie struck out at a much higher rate last year than Hunter has at any point in his career.
In addition, Hicks did not respond as well (or at least as immediately) to his demotion. When Hunter was sent down in 2000 following a poor start to his sophomore campaign, he absolutely raked in Triple-A, putting up a 1.130 OPS in 55 games to earn a recall. He hit far better in the second half with the Twins and the rest is history.
Hicks didn't experience the same kind of success following his demotion last year. He went to Rochester, hit .222/.317/.333 in 22 games, was not recalled in September and then skipped winter ball. It was about as bad a season as one could possibly imagine, and it left a sour aftertaste.
But the bottom line with Hunter, and countless other players, is that early struggles at the highest level are hardly a death knell. That's especially true when you're talking about a 23-year-old who skipped Triple-A on his way to the bigs, as Hicks did.
Patience is key. Yet the Twins can't and won't exercise endless patience. By this time next year, Byron Buxton may already be entrenched as the long-term center fielder, and there are plenty of emerging contenders to fill the corner spots. If Hicks is unable to bounce back quickly and reestablish himself as an organizational fixture, he could easily be passed up by other outfielders in a crowded system.
That will make him one of the most intriguing players to keep an eye on in the early part of the 2014 season.