• Position Battle: Starting Center Fielder

    Over the next two weeks, we’ll be writing about some of the biggest topics of the Minnesota Twins' spring training. Some of those are position battles. One such ‘battle’ fans will be playing close attention to in 2014 is one that was pretty big in 2013. Who will go into the 2014 season as the Twins starting centerfielder?

    Though you will likely read about this being a three man race for the job, it is likely really just between two players. That said, the player who may get the most attention at the position is a fourth option.

    LOOKING BACK


    Before we start thinking about 2014, let’s take a look back to one year ago. The Twins had traded Denard Span and Ben Revere. By the time of Twins Fest, the Twins' front office was touting Aaron Hicks as ready to take over. Sure, they also often said that Joe Benson, coming off micro-fracture surgery, and Darin Mastroianni would also be competing for the job. However, there was little to no question who would open the season as the Twins starting centerfielder.

    It was called a competition through spring training. Since it was called a competition there had to be a winner, and there was no question who won that challenge. Aaron Hicks hit like crazy in the very small sample size of spring training. In 73 at-bats, he hit .370/.407/.644 (1.051) with six doubles, a triple and four RBI. He also was three for three in stolen base attempts. Darin Mastroianni played pretty well too, but he entered the regular season with an ankle injury that cost him the majority of the year. Benson struggled, as was expected after missing much of the 2012 season. He hit just .151/.286/.283 (.569) with two doubles, a triple and a home run. After continued struggles, Benson was DFA'd and claimed by the Texas Rangers. He signed a minor league contract with the Miami Marlins this offseason.

    Of course, what fans remember much better than the spring training stats of Hicks are the numbers he put up in the regular season. He hit just .192/.259/.338 (.597) with 11 doubles, three triples and eight home runs. He certainly flashed some talent. How about the game against the White Sox when he stole a home run with his glove and hit a home run from both sides of the plate? Or, how about the throw in Yankees Stadium to nail a runner at third base? However, for the most part, it was a disappointing season for Hicks.

    In August, the Twins received Alex Presley from the Pirates in the Justin Morneau trade. He made 28 starts for the Twins to end the season and hit .283/.336/.363 (.699) with four doubles, a triple and a home run.

    Presley has struggled in parts of four seasons in the big leagues. Overall, he has played in 232 games and hit .264/.304/.411 (.715). In 733 minor league games, he has hit .292/.352/.437 (.789).

    LOOKING TO SPRING


    Let’s start with the obvious. Wilkin Ramirez is likely not in competition for the starting centerfield job. He may be competing for the 25th man on the roster, but it’s fair to say he won’t be the Twins starter. Also, Darin Mastroianni may be involved in the competition this spring, but ultimately, he’s fighting for a fourth (or fifth) outfield job after being designated for assignment during the offseason.

    The big question for Twins fans (and frankly, the front office) has to be; what does Aaron Hicks have to do this spring to win the centerfield job? Think about it. If he puts up the remarkable spring statistics he did a year ago, will he win the job? What are the intangibles that manager Ron Gardenhire will need to see for him to get the job. Hicks certainly has the potential and the tools to be a very good, all-round outfielder. He may never hit for average, but he has shown an ability to get on base. He does have extra base power. He plays tremendous defense and has a very strong arm. The Twins certainly have not given up on him.

    He gained ten pounds this offseason in an attempt to get stronger. He did not play winter ball which allowed him to clear his head and rest his body. He should come to camp strong. We know he will be either the Twins starting centerfielder or the Rochester Red Wings starting centerfielder. He will not be a backup at this stage of his career. The Twins brass need to determine what is best for him, long-term.

    However, the incumbent right now is Presley. Though he hasn’t shown a lot in the big leagues, his minor league career implies he could become a decent player. Specifically, he has shown an ability to get on base, and he has shown some extra- base pop. He is a solid defender, though certainly not in the class of Aaron Hicks. He probably profiles more as a fourth outfielder than a starter. That’s probably what he is with the Twins as well. He is likely the favorite for opening day starter, but at the end of the day, he is most likely a stop-gap. He is a place-holder maybe for Aaron Hicks who should come up sometime in 2014 and get another shot. He is also, in the big picture, a stop-gap till Byron Buxton arrives.

    Oh, Byron Buxton… He will also be at big league spring training this year. The consensus #1 prospect in all baseball is the talk of minor league baseball. The question with him is not IF, but WHEN. When will Buxton come up to the Twins, and just how great can be become. Of course, we also need to remember he has just a half-season of High-A ball under his belt. He is likely to start the season in New Britain, but a midseason promotion to the Twins is not out of the realm of possibility. In spring training, he will be looking to make an impression on the coaching staff.

    SUMMARY


    This will be an interesting competition to watch. As noted, I really believe it is a two-man race between last year’s opening day centerfielder (Aaron Hicks) and the incumbent for the job (Alex Presley). Ask yourself the question I did above: What do you think Aaron Hicks needs to do, or needs to show, to be the starting centerfielder? Presley is out of options, and he’s a solid outfielder, so he appears to be a shoo-in for the opening day roster, but should he be the starter? And, ultimately, how long will Twins fans have to wait for Byron Buxton. Buxton could force Hicks to a corner outfield spot and Presley to the role of backup outfielder again.

    How do you see this position battle playing out throughout the spring?
    Comments 61 Comments
    1. cmathewson's Avatar
      cmathewson -
      Quote Originally Posted by Lonestar View Post
      We'll see what his future is. Is he more like Jaque Jones or Ben Revere or Torii Hunter or Joe Benson?
      If he was just a right-handed batter, he'd project similar to Hunter, IMO. As a switch hitter, he's kind of Hunter from the right side and Span from the left side.
    1. zak4221's Avatar
      zak4221 -
      I hope Willingham has a strong first half, when buxton is ready, they will trade willingham and move hicks to left.
    1. Don't Feed the Greed Guy's Avatar
      Don't Feed the Greed Guy -
      I like this progression during the 2014 regular season, based upon on-the-field performance, not merely potential:

      J.D. Williams: (et al.) A to AA
      Buxton: AA to AAA, September call-up to MLB
      Hicks: AAA to MLB

      I would like to see these players on the field every day, whether in the minors, or when their performance makes Kubel, Willingham, Parmelee, Mastro and/or Presley expendable/releasable/tradable around the All-Star break, if not earlier.

      The tricky balance is allowing for a natural progression of talent, rather than creating a logjam at the highest levels in the organization.

      Throw in Rosario as the wild card as he comes off his 50 game suspension.
    1. Oxtung's Avatar
      Oxtung -
      The optimism here boggles my mind.  Hicks' just had one of the worst rookie seasons of the last 50 years. In fact his .192 BA is the 5th worst. He gets sent to AAA and doesn't show anything there either. Now people want him to start again in the majors to begin the season?

      <---- Mind Boggled
    1. TKGuy's Avatar
      TKGuy -
      I guess I don't see the logic of not starting Hicks. Learn on the job and as long as he has matured, he should be in CF until Buxton comes. Then Hicks can move A corner spots. I like Presley as a 4th OF. It's time for Mastro and Ramirez to go, so keep Hammer, Hicks, Arcia, Presley and Parmalee.

      I think same thing goes for Pinto, why not get some experience and see if he is the future, and if not, we have some other options working up the system
    1. Oxtung's Avatar
      Oxtung -
      Quote Originally Posted by TKGuy View Post
      I guess I don't see the logic of not starting Hicks. Learn on the job and as long as he has matured, he should be in CF until Buxton comes. Then Hicks can move A corner spots. I like Presley as a 4th OF. It's time for Mastro and Ramirez to go, so keep Hammer, Hicks, Arcia, Presley and Parmalee.

      I think same thing goes for Pinto, why not get some experience and see if he is the future, and if not, we have some other options working up the system
      In education you don't just drop a student into a situation they aren't ready for and say "sink or swim". When you're teaching mathematics you don't take a kid that can't add and try to teach them multiplication. All learning is a step by step process and you need to have a grasp on step X before you can move onto Step Y.

      It's pretty clear after last season that Hicks hasn't mastered the fundamentals needed to succeed at the MLB level. He has missed a step or three along the way and needs to relearn some things.

      Why not let him learn in the majors? Failing for a short amount of time can be a good thing. It can force a student to refocus or accept that the previous fundamentals were important to learn.

      After they fail however they have to have time to go back and relearn those fundamentals in a lower pressure environment. If a student fails at multiplication because they can't add, hammering them over and over that they're a failure because they can't multiply does no good. In fact it can cause long term damage. It leads to resentment and a loss of confidence which in turn leads to feeling worthless at a given task. When that happens you've now removed any desire a student once had for learning the task. They dread the task now.

      Another reason for sending him back to AAA is that while the major league staff might be the best at teaching the advanced concepts that pitchers need to understand to be successful that does not mean they are the best at teaching the previous steps that lead up to the advanced stuff. The whole point of the AAA staff is to teach those concepts. Another benefit is that Hicks will be surrounded by guys learning the same concepts and he can talk with them about it.

      Recap: We know Hicks has failed in the majors and needs to learn some of the fundamentals he's missing. By going back to AAA he is in a lower pressure environment more conducive to learning, surrounded by others learning those same concepts and with a staff that is dedicated to teaching those specific concepts. Once he is starting to master those missing fundamentals he will also be at a level that is easier for him to be successful leading to more confidence which in turn reinforces the fundamentals. At that point he is ready for a second attempt at MLB.
    1. cmathewson's Avatar
      cmathewson -
      Quote Originally Posted by Oxtung View Post
      The optimism here boggles my mind.&nbsp; Hicks' just had one of the worst rookie seasons of the last 50 years. In fact his .192 BA is the 5th worst. He gets sent to AAA and doesn't show anything there either. Now people want him to start again in the majors to begin the season?

      <---- Mind Boggled
      Correction, he had about the worst first fourteen days of a major league career you can have. But he made adjustments and did decently for a rookie thereafter.

      In March and April, his OPS was .356. In May is was .707. In June, it was .708. In July it was .671. You do him a disservice by ignoring the improvement he made last year. From May through July, Hicks had a higher OPS than Presley did in September (.699).
    1. stringer bell's Avatar
      stringer bell -
      No question, Oxtung made some good points. Hicks made the team in 2013 on the basis of having good tools, having his best minor league season, and having a fine 2012 minor league season. Since he fell somewhere between disappointment and failure, we can discount the spring training performance and since he is coming off a poor 2013, his promotion couldn't be based on his previous season. The Twins aren't going to platoon him with a LH hitter or bring him up as a fourth OF, so he needs everyone else to fail miserably or be injured or he has to be beyond good in spring training games.
    1. birdwatcher's Avatar
      birdwatcher -
      I guess I question how much of Hick's struggles were due to lack of "knowledge". We can take that math student, send him to take part in the school play, feel comfortable that he has his lines down, and then watch him step onto the big stage under the bright lights and stumble through his lines. I wonder if Hicks had a bit of stage fright. Sometimes it just takes getting used to the spotlights.
    1. cmathewson's Avatar
      cmathewson -
      Quote Originally Posted by birdwatcher View Post
      I guess I question how much of Hick's struggles were due to lack of "knowledge". We can take that math student, send him to take part in the school play, feel comfortable that he has his lines down, and then watch him step onto the big stage under the bright lights and stumble through his lines. I wonder if Hicks had a bit of stage fright. Sometimes it just takes getting used to the spotlights.
      There's a lot to that. His whole family in attendance. Leading off against Verlander. First pitch strike on a curve ball that went six inches around the plate. That was like choking on your first line. After that, his confidence took a nosedive. The fact that he recovered is encouraging.
    1. Jdosen's Avatar
      Jdosen -
      I'd like to be optimistic on Hicks, and I think if he's handled correctly he can still be a valuable player, but if I had to guess, I would say most players who are as bad as he was last year never amount to much.

      I want to see Hicks in AAA on Opening Day. Not only has he not yet shown that he can hit Big League pitching, he certainly hasn't shown that he can hit AAA pitching yet either. I'd like to think that he can, and 5-7 weeks in Rochester will only help his development. If he's having success (not only in numbers, but if the coaches feel his approach is ready), then call him up and set him loose.

      Whatever the Twins do, I hope to God they don't let ST numbers (good or bad) decided anything. Hicks is not the only example for ST numbers not correlating with success in the regular season. Another one I remember is 2012 Liriano who tore it up in ST and was in the bullpen by May.
    1. Kwak's Avatar
      Kwak -
      Quote Originally Posted by Jdosen View Post


      Whatever the Twins do, I hope to God they don't let ST numbers (good or bad) decided anything. Hicks is not the only example for ST numbers not correlating with success in the regular season. Another one I remember is 2012 Liriano who tore it up in ST and was in the bullpen by May.
      However, in 2013, Liriano was instrumental in helping his team qualify for the playoffs for the first time in 20 years, and was named comeback player of the year in the National League.
    1. Jdosen's Avatar
      Jdosen -
      Quote Originally Posted by Kwak View Post
      However, in 2013, Liriano was instrumental in helping his team qualify for the playoffs for the first time in 20 years, and was named comeback player of the year in the National League.
      He certainly was, but that doesn't change the fact that his ST numbers don't correlate to regular season numbers.
    1. mike wants wins's Avatar
      mike wants wins -
      I want Hicks in LF, with Pressley in CF until Buxton is up in September. Get Hicks used to his LT position (assuming Rosario is at 2B or traded).......no need for Willingham to see the outfield for this team. IF they are seriious about not being in big holes at the beginning of games, they need OF defense.
    1. cmathewson's Avatar
      cmathewson -
      Quote Originally Posted by Jdosen View Post
      I'd like to be optimistic on Hicks, and I think if he's handled correctly he can still be a valuable player, but if I had to guess, I would say most players who are as bad as he was last year never amount to much.

      I want to see Hicks in AAA on Opening Day. Not only has he not yet shown that he can hit Big League pitching, he certainly hasn't shown that he can hit AAA pitching yet either. I'd like to think that he can, and 5-7 weeks in Rochester will only help his development. If he's having success (not only in numbers, but if the coaches feel his approach is ready), then call him up and set him loose.

      Whatever the Twins do, I hope to God they don't let ST numbers (good or bad) decided anything. Hicks is not the only example for ST numbers not correlating with success in the regular season. Another one I remember is 2012 Liriano who tore it up in ST and was in the bullpen by May.
      Most player struggle when they come to the majors. Ben Revere had one of the worst Septembers I ever remember in his debut. Hunter was bad when he came up, in fact, the whole 99 team sucked that year.

      Michael Cuddyer. Jason Kubel. Justin Morneau. Jason Bartlett. The list goes on. More recently, Carlos Gomez says hi. Brian Dozier was horrible in his debut.

      Everybody fixates on the season opener and forgets the rest of the year. I don't get it.
    1. cmathewson's Avatar
      cmathewson -
      Quote Originally Posted by mike wants wins View Post
      I want Hicks in LF, with Pressley in CF until Buxton is up in September. Get Hicks used to his LT position (assuming Rosario is at 2B or traded).......no need for Willingham to see the outfield for this team. IF they are seriious about not being in big holes at the beginning of games, they need OF defense.
      You'd rather have Pressly hitting than Kubel? Good luck with that.
    1. mike wants wins's Avatar
      mike wants wins -
      I'd rather have Pressley fielding. No idea what to do about the hitting. But since they already punted on the hitting, let's put the best defense out there. Two mediocre things are less valuable in sports than 1 good and one bad thing. Prevent the runs, get lucky with the hitting, win a few more games. Or, just be bad at field and at hitting....
    1. Alex's Avatar
      Alex -
      Quote Originally Posted by mike wants wins View Post
      I'd rather have Pressley fielding. No idea what to do about the hitting. But since they already punted on the hitting, let's put the best defense out there. Two mediocre things are less valuable in sports than 1 good and one bad thing. Prevent the runs, get lucky with the hitting, win a few more games. Or, just be bad at field and at hitting....
      We'll see how Kubel hits this season, but he was terrible last year, way worse than Presley.
    1. Alex's Avatar
      Alex -
      Quote Originally Posted by cmathewson View Post
      Correction, he had about the worst first fourteen days of a major league career you can have. But he made adjustments and did decently for a rookie thereafter.

      In March and April, his OPS was .356. In May is was .707. In June, it was .708. In July it was .671. You do him a disservice by ignoring the improvement he made last year. From May through July, Hicks had a higher OPS than Presley did in September (.699).
      Presley didn't have the power Hicks had but his .336 OBP makes him far more valuable if he can continue to produce that, which may be doubtful and that's why you see the difference in OPS. That's the most concerning aspect of Hicks's struggles is that he never found the ability to even draw walks and he's always had a high number of strikeouts, which we can expect to be higher in the majors. It wasn't good, not really ever, with the exception of facing LHP, but that's the less frequent platoon split, and he's too young to be platooned since you want him to get as many at bats as possible.
    1. Oxtung's Avatar
      Oxtung -
      Quote Originally Posted by cmathewson View Post
      Correction, he had about the worst first fourteen days of a major league career you can have. But he made adjustments and did decently for a rookie thereafter.

      In March and April, his OPS was .356. In May is was .707. In June, it was .708. In July it was .671. You do him a disservice by ignoring the improvement he made last year. From May through July, Hicks had a higher OPS than Presley did in September (.699).
      No he didn't. You keep looking at OPS but that is disguising his really poor contact skills. His power was better than expected but his game is still built around getting on base and using his speed. If he can't learn how to get on base higher than 26% of the time he will never make it.

      Here are their full season stats their rookie years.
      Full Season Avg OBP SLG OPS BB% K%
      Aaron Hicks .192 .259 .338 .597 7.7 26.8
      Torii Hunter .255 .309 .380 .689 6.2 17.1
      Hunter is better across the board by a fairly large margin. Torii's stats are wha a rookie hitter (who isn't a catcher or SS) should look like.


      If you remove their worst 2 week stretch after which you claim Hicks got so much better:
      -2 Weeks Avg OBP SLG OPS BB% K%
      Aaron Hicks .222 .273 .400 .673 6 25
      Torii Hunter .270 .357 .405 .762 6 16
      Again, Hunter is better across the board by a wide margin. He showed good skills getting on base.

      Here are Hunter's April-June numbers: .233/.286/.336 OPS-.622
      Here are Hunter's July-September numbers: .286/.341/.441 OPS-.782

      That is improvement.
      Hunter is not a particularly good comp for Hicks.
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