Age: 23 (DOB: 10/2/89)
AA: .286/.384/.460, 13 HR, 61 RBI, 100 R, 32/43 SB
When it comes to physical tools, Aaron Hicks is tough to top. A muscular 6'2" outfielder with tremendous speed and an arm so strong that many teams considered drafting him as a pitcher, he's the type of player scouts salivate over.
Will the production match the athleticism? That's a question that has followed him throughout his career as a pro, which hasn't been without its warts. After repeating a season at Low-A in 2010, the switch hitter fell off the elite prospect map by scuffling through his '11 campaign in Ft. Myers, batting just .242 with a .722 OPS and flailing from the left side of the plate.
Last year he came roaring back, dominating the competition at Double-A with a performance so strong that he's back on the national prospect scene and suddenly in position to win a starting position on the major-league roster out of spring training.
During his professional debut in 2008, the 14th overall pick displayed an auspiciously advanced approach at the plate, drawing 28 walks against 32 strikeouts in 45 games in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League as an 18-year-old.
As he's risen through the ranks, his bat has lagged at times but the uncommon adeptness for taking walks has always remained intact. In five minor-league seasons, Hicks has drawn free passes at a 15 percent overall rate. For comparison, the uber-patient Joe Mauer walked at an 11 percent rate in his brief minor-league career and has been at 12 percent in the majors.
Check out Hicks' year-by-year league ranks in the BB% category:
2010: 17.0% (5th in Midwest League)
2011: 14.8% (5th in Florida State League)
2012: 13.9% (3rd in Eastern League)
In the three seasons where he's had enough at-bats to qualify, Hicks has been among the five most patient hitters in his league, and in nearly all cases he's been younger than anyone surrounding him on the leaderboard.
His ability to take pitches and coax walks is a vital skill that allows him to get on base even when his batting average slumps. His overall OBP in the minors is .379 and he's never posted a mark below .353.
Hicks' bat has been somewhat slow to develop, as he batted just .266 with 25 home runs in his first four seasons as a pro, but year represented a major breakout. If the .286/.384/.460 line with 13 homers as a 22-year-old doesn't blow you away, consider that the average batter in the Eastern League was 24.5 years old and hit .260/.330/.392. Hicks ranked fourth in the EL in OPS and was younger than any other player in the top 18. He tied for the league lead in triples (11) and ranked third in stolen bases (32). It was a monster season.
That's not even accounting for his defense, which was typically fantastic in center field. Hicks covers tons of ground with his high-end wheels and has a cannon arm that tops the scales for many scouts (no surprise, given that he pitched in the high 90s as a prep). He's a huge defensive asset, which substantially magnifies the value of everything he provides on offense.
With his consistently strong on-base skills, his speed and his ability to hit from both sides, Hicks profiles as an ideal leadoff hitter – a big part of the reason he seems like an appealing option for this year's Twins team. If his increased power and his improved proficiency against right-handers last year both prove legitimate, he could easily develop into one of the most well rounded center fielders in the major leagues.
The weaknesses in Hicks' offensive game have been distinct. No. 1 on that list is strikeouts. Although he's drawn walks at an outstanding clip throughout his career, Hicks has also whiffed quite a bit, with three straight 100-K seasons.
Overall, he's struck out in 20 percent of his plate appearances as a pro and that has taken a toll on his batting average; he hasn't approached .300 since his debut in rookie ball. Hicks batted .251 in his first turn at Low-A in 2009 and .242 in his first turn at High-A in 2011. Last year's .286 mark was certainly an improvement, but was buoyed by a .346 BABIP. As long as he keeps piling up strikeouts, Hicks will have a tough time mustering strong batting averages in the majors, which would limit his offensive upside.
There's also the matter of hitting from both sides of the plate. Up until last year, the outfielder really struggled from the left side, and that's an issue when the vast majority of pitchers will push him into that batter's box.
A natural righty who took up switch-hitting as a sophomore in high school, Hicks himself admitted to Baseball America in 2011 that he doesn't generate the same pop swinging lefty, though he added that he "sees the ball better and gets better at-bats from the left side."
His splits last year were much more balanced, and we can hope that's a sign of things to come, but I suspect that holding his own against right-handers will be one of Hicks' toughest hurdles as he adapts to the majors.
The Bottom Line
No. 3 is higher than you'll see Hicks on most lists, but personally, I'd make a case for ranking him even higher. His combination of skills is rare, and he delivered a major statement with his performance in the Eastern League last year. It wouldn't surprise me a bit of he were a Rookie of the Year contender with the Twins this season, nor if he ultimately goes down as the best in a long succession of quality Minnesota center fielders.
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