Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Twins Baseball: A Look at the Future

The calendar has switched over to May, and the Twins are over .500.  After a 1-6 start to the year, this is by no means a small accomplishment.  Enduring four straight seasons of 90+ losses makes looking to the future a necessary coping mechanism for Twins fans like myself.  For the last couple of years, I've been waiting and hoping to finally witness a "transition year." As of today, I think 2015 may be that year.

After a lengthy absence from writing in this space, I am hoping to become a more consistent presence.  I am going to start things off by looking to the future yet again, not as a coping mechanism, but to explore how the 2015 season can "transition" the team back to relevance in MLB. For the first time in years, the future core of a successful franchise is starting to show itself, and many of the big pieces are finally knocking at the door.  This is the first in a series of posts examining some of the major players who will power this resurgence. 

No, I'm not going to talk about Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano, or J.O. Berrios (at least not today).  I want to kick things off by examining another piece to the puzzle, and an important one at that.  Today, let's talk about Aaron Hicks.

Twins fans have been hearing about Aaron Hicks for years, since he was drafted with the 14th overall pick in 2008 out of high school in California.  He spent most of his early years in professional baseball enjoying prominent placement on various top prospect publications.  In fact, from 2009 - 2013, Baseball America ranked him as the #39, #19, #45, and #79 prospect in all of baseball.  He was to be the next great center fielder for the Twins, following in the footsteps of Kirby Puckett, Torii Hunter, and Denard Span. Now, in 2015, Hicks is no longer a top prospect, and the "next great Twins center fielder" title belongs to Byron Buxton.  The general consensus is that Aaron Hicks is a bust, and doesn't have a place in the future of the Minnesota Twins.

I, for one, think that the general consensus is wrong, and here is why.

History Lesson

As a general rule, "toolsy" high-school prospects take much longer to develop into solid regulars in the major leagues.  Coming out of high-school, Hicks was not only considered "raw," but there was also considerable debate about whether to make him a pitcher or an everyday player.  That Hicks didn't move up the ladder quickly, therefore, was neither surprising nor alarming to the Twins.  Let's look at Hicks' so-called "top-prospect" years to examine his natural progression.

  • 2008: After being drafted, Hicks spent time in rookie ball as an 18 year old.  As should be expected from a high draft pick, he got off to a good start, slashing .318/.409/.491 and stealing 12 bases in 14 attempts. 
  • 2009: A strong showing in rookie ball convinced the Twins that Hicks was good enough to skip a level, and he played the entire season for Beloit (Low A) as a 19 year old.  Playing in a league where he was nearly 3 years younger than average, he put up good, but not great numbers.  He ended up with a slash line of .251/.353/.382, showing good plate awareness (40 BB to 55 K) but not much power (4 HR in 250 AB). 
  • 2010: As a 20 year old, he returned to Beloit for a second season, and improved his numbers significantly (.279/.401/.428), hitting 8 HR and 27 2B, while slightly improving his walk-to-strikeout numbers (88 BB to 112 K).     
  • 2011: The next season, Hicks moved up a level to Ft. Myers (High A) and once again struggled with the transition.   His full season numbers were similar to 2009, as he hit .242/.354/.368, continuing to excel in taking walks (78) and hitting doubles (31), while his anticipated "power tool" failed to materialize.  Under normal circumstances, Hicks would have probably returned to Ft. Myers in 2012, but after a stellar performance in the Arizona fall league (.294/.400/.559), the Twins decided he was ready for AA. 
  • 2012: Riding a wave of confidence from his AFL experience, Hicks' career really started to take off in AA New Britain as a 22 year old.  He truly had a "breakout year," as he continued to draw walks (79) while starting to show off his power potential (21 2B, 11 3B, 13 HR).  Overall, Hicks finished the season with a slash line of .286/.384/.460, while playing a great CF for the Rock Cats. 
  • 2013/2014/2015: While repeating AA wouldn't have made much sense after such a strong year, a normal progression would have Hicks starting 2013 at AAA Rochester.  His history certainly suggests that he would have struggled significantly with the jump, likely repeating AAA in 2014.  Had that been the case, and assuming that he worked things out in 2014, Hicks would have been in line for a mid-to-late 2014 MLB call-up, likely joining the Twins last July or September.  That would have put him in a great position to open 2015 as the starting CF for your Minnesota Twins (at age 25). 
As we all know, this is not how the events played out.  Instead of continuing to refine his skills at AAA in 2013, Hicks was thrust into the spotlight as the Twins' starting CF after Denard Span and Ben Revere were traded for pitching prospects.  Looking at the history above, it should not surprise anyone that Aaron Hicks struggled to maintain his performance as he bounced back and forth between the majors and AAA.   In 2013, he struggled to hit .200 in either MLB or AAA. In 2014, he once again struggled to get on track in the majors, even briefly giving up switch-hitting.  In fact, it took a return to AA New Britain, the setting for his breakout season of 2012, for him to really get back on track. 

The Turning Point

Last summer, in mid-June, Hicks was placed on the disabled list with a shoulder injury and was eventually sent to New Britain for a rehab assignment.  After hitting just .238, the Twins decided to leave him in New Britain after he came off the DL, to see if he could re-gain his confidence.  To me, this felt like the Twins (and Hicks) got a "do over," as Hicks proceeded to hit .297/.404/.466 in AA, .278/.349/.389 in AAA, and earned a much deserved September call-up to the big club. 

This year, the Twins surprised many, including me, by sending Hicks back to AAA to begin the season, keeping Jordan Schafer and Shane Robinson to share duties in CF.  Hicks has responded to this move by hitting .318/.396/.545, with 12 extra base hits (6 2B, 4 3B, 2HR), 12 walks and 17 strike-outs in 88 at-bats.  If he can continue this type of production at Rochester, Hicks will soon be re-joining his teammates in the Twin Cities.

How He Fits

Even though Aaron Hicks is no longer the "CF of the future" for the Minnesota Twins, he could quickly become the "CF of the present" until young Mr. Buxton is ready to take the reigns. When that time comes, hopefully later this summer, Hicks would look great patrolling left field next to Buxton. Consider how much our outfield defense would improve if we could trot out Hicks/Buxton/Hunter, Hicks/Buxton/Rosario, or Hicks/Buxton/Arcia instead of Arcia/Schafer/Hunter, Robinson/Shafer/Arcia, or Escobar/Schafer/Hunter (yikes!), as we have lined up a few times this season. 

No matter how things pan out by the end of the season, a productive Aaron Hicks could be a very important piece of the puzzle, as this "year of transition" plays itself out before our eyes.

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