After the Twins parted with franchise mainstay Torii Hunter back in 2007, they needed to make a decision about who would take his place in the middle of the outfield. Finding a veteran placeholder was an option, but instead they ultimately decided to go straight to Hunter's heir apparent: a raw but tremendously athletic kid acquired in the Johan Santana trade.
Carlos Gomez was clearly rough around the edges when he assumed the important roles of center fielder and leadoff hitter in 2008. At the time, he had played only 94 games above Double-A, including a brief stint in Triple-A and an overmatched MLB debut.
Yet, the Twins were seemingly eager to get an early look at their future, and to give fans a glimpse as well. Gomez was the kind of special talent that could captivate folks at the ballpark and soften the blow of losing a player as popular as Hunter. He was exciting.
Gomez never realized his potential in Minnesota, but midway through that '08 campaign, it was another young player who came up and made a big rookie splash. Denard Span would supplant Gomez as leadoff hitter by the end of the year, and as full-time center fielder a year later. Span held those designations up until a couple weeks ago when the Twins traded him for prospect Alex Meyer.
Span's apparent predecessor, Ben Revere, was surprisingly moved the next week, putting the Twins in a similar position to 2008. Center field is now wide open, and the club has a choice of either filling it with a stopgap (Darin Mastroianni? Free agent?) or transitioning directly to the future with Aaron Hicks.
Hicks hasn't played above the Double-A level, where had a breakout campaign in 2012, but this organization has shown a willingness to push its preferred prospects right into the majors with little or no seasoning in Triple-A if there's an opening. We've seen it recently with the likes of Ben Revere, Chris Parmelee and Brian Dozier.
Hicks is a year older than Gomez was when he took the reigns in center, and has a more well rounded skill set. Whereas Gomez had shown poor plate discipline throughout the minors, Hicks has consistently excelled in that department with a career .379 on-base percentage, including .384 last year in his first turn at Double-A.
Renowned for his above-average range and outstanding throwing arm, Hicks is ready to handle center field defensively in the majors. Whether the Twins will be willing to give him a chance depends on where they feel his offensive game is at, but if they're looking for someone that they can plug into the top of the lineup with Span and Revere gone, Hicks' on-base skills alone seem worthy of a gamble. Certainly his overall offensive game has to be viewed as more polished than Gomez's when he was given the nod.
This organization is obviously very high on Hicks. Ryan wouldn't have been willing to deal both Span and Revere if that weren't the case. Do they believe Hicks is ready now? The more I read, and the more I hear, the more I believe they do. Barring a meltdown in spring training, I think the former first-round pick is the front-runner for the center field job.
And fans should be very excited about that indeed.