As the offseason gets underway and the Hot Stove prepares to heat up, the first step for Terry Ryan and the Minnesota Twins is to evaluate what they have, and what they need.
One key figure in their planning process is Aaron Hicks, whose mixed-bag 2015 season leaves the Twins in a state of uncertainty going forward.
In some respects, Hicks' season could be viewed as a breakout year. His .256 batting average was a massive step up from the .201 he put up between 2013 and 2014, he cut down substantially on strikeouts, and he notched 25 extra-base hits in 97 games. His .721 OPS was 115 points higher than his mark entering the campaign.
After rejoining the club in early July following a stint on the disabled list, Hicks looked like a different player than the one who had constantly struggled against big-league pitching, posting a monstrous .320/.378/.531 slash line with six homers in his first 35 games back.
The problem is that it's not clear whether Hicks truly turned the corner this season, or simply enjoyed a nice five-week hot streak. Because outside of the aforementioned stretch, his performance was really not all that different from those disappointing first couple seasons with the Twins.
Hicks opened the season in Triple-A and was called up in mid-May. In the month before he landed on the DL with a sore elbow, he hit .247/.293/.301, which was pretty much in line with his past production. And following that 35-game hot streak, he limped to a .198/.291/.336 finish in his final 34 contests.
If the 26-year-old outfielder had sustained his success over a prolonged period of time, it would be easier to look at him as a reliable building block heading into 2016. As things stand, I'm not sure that the Twins can. He will surely have a spot on the Opening Day roster – he's earned that much, and he'll be out of options so another start in the minors isn't on the table anyway – but in what capacity should the Twins plan to utilize Hicks?
It's becoming increasingly clear that in order to maximize his effectiveness, they'll need to use him as a part-time player. Even with all of his improvements at the plate this season, the switch-hitting Hicks continued to struggle when swinging from the left side, batting just .235/.302/.359 against right-handed pitchers. Since righties comprise the vast majority of the league's pitchers, that is not ideal.
At the very least, the Twins need to have a left-handed hitting outfielder on the roster who can fill in occasionally and offset Hicks' weakness in this area. A straight platoon would make a great deal of sense in terms of maximizing run production, although I'm not sure Paul Molitor is ready to go that far since Hicks remains relatively young and is a big asset defensively. Regardless, he should be shielded against righties to some extent.
One option, in the event that Hicks is in right field, is to platoon him with Oswaldo Arcia. I know that might not sound appealing in light of his awful 2015 season, but Arcia was consistently an offensive force for many years prior. He needs to work his way back into the mix and he'll be out of options next spring so a return to Triple-A isn't happening. Deploying him strategically against righties, against whom he has been very effective in the majors (.807 OPS), is a good way to accomplish just that.
Another possibility? Max Kepler, the lefty-swinging star prospect who debuted briefly in September. But the 22-year-old will probably not be in the running for a roster spot coming out of spring training and I doubt the Twins will want to limit him to part-time duty when he comes up. Eddie Rosario would fit the bill as well but will likely head into 2016 as an entrenched regular.
If the Twins elect to use Hicks in center field, with Byron Buxton starting in the minors, they narrow down their options somewhat. There's not a good lefty-swinging center field option at their disposal presently. Among pending free agents, the only name that really stands out is our old friend Denard Span, who probably isn't looking for a part-time gig. Span was absolutely stellar against the righties this year though (.330/.393/.486).
What do you think? What's your view of Hicks heading into the offseason, and how would you work him into your 2016 plans?