Likely Starter: Aaron Hicks
2012 Stats (AA): .286/.384/.460, 13 HR, 61 RBI, 100 R
Potential Backups: Darin Mastroianni, Joe Benson
Those who were eager to see an intense and compelling spring competition for the starting center field job have surely been disappointed.
Aaron Hicks was the front-runner before camp got underway and then took firm hold of the job with his truly stellar exhibition performance. Joe Benson was demoted to the minors after struggling, and Darin Mastroianni has played well but has missed time. On Sunday, Ron Gardenhire made official what was already apparent
: Hicks is going to be his center fielder and leadoff man on Opening Day.
This brings a mix of excitement and uncertainty, with no shortage of either. Hicks is coming off an excellent season in Double-A, but he hasn't taken a single regular-season at-bat above that level, and hasn't always been a dominant offensive player in the minors. At various times, the switch hitter has been overly strikeout prone, has struggled to produce from the left side of the plate, and has been baffled by the adjustments of opposing pitchers.
Those are real concerns when we're talking about a 23-year-old who's going to be thrown directly into the fire. But through all his ups and downs, Hicks has always exhibited a keenly discerning eye at the plate, along with terrific defense in center field. Those traits have been on display this month in Florida, and when you get past the (possibly fluky) power display and the general buzz surrounding him, they're likely the biggest factors in the club's willingness to have him bypass Triple-A and begin accruing MLB service time immediately.
The wisdom of that decision can be questioned, but here's the bottom line: If Hicks struggles in his transition to the majors, he'll be sent to Triple-A knowing specifically what he needs to work on. At that point Mastroianni can ably take over and Hicks' service clock will pause, nullifying the entire concern. If Hicks doesn't get sent down at any point, it'll mean he's figuring things out and we'll probably all be too pleased to fret about manageable long-term ramifications.
While Hicks has wrangled in the majority of attention this spring, Mastroianni has done nothing to play his way out of the conversation. The speedster is batting .364 and is 7-for-8 on stolen base attempts. His penchants for getting on base and creating terror once there have made him a scrappy asset, and with his defensive versatility he's an ideal fit as a fourth outfielder.
The Twins seem aware of that, and they're content to keep him in that role while Hicks takes the spotlight. The progress of the rising young center fielder will be a central storyline in Minneapolis this year, and a similar one will play out four hours south, where elite prospect Byron Buxton figures to line up in Cedar Rapids.
It says an awful lot about the state of the position in this organization that the team can trade away two valuable MLB center fielders during an offseason, then immediately plug in a rookie who has a chance to be better than either, but who himself might just be keeping the spot warm for one of the game's most heralded prospects.