Monday, November 17, 2014

The Case for Aaron Hicks

Before my last post, it had been since April 2013 since I had written anything about the Twins. I'm honestly in awe of you bloggers out there who have continued to write about this team despite four straight 90+ loss seasons. Not only does that take dedication, it takes a special kind of stamina to keep going despite the product on the field. My hats off to you. The last thing I wrote about was Aaron Hicks who, at the time, was at the beginning of his rookie season and who had a historically bad opening to his Major League career. I would love to say that he turned it around and is now a fixture in center field for the Twins, but we all know that's not true and, in fact, things haven't gotten much better at all. With that being said, I still think Hicks has a chance to be a decent center fielder for the Twins.

At 25, Hicks is still relatively young, and that may be the biggest thing going for him. For comparison, Carlos Gomez was 26 before he really started to put it together after being traded from the Twins to the Brewers. Torii Hunter was 23 when he played his first full season in the Big Leagues and was 25 before he really hit his stride with the Twins. Curtis Granderson was also 25 when he finally put it all together on the Major League level. Puckett was 24-years-old as a rookie with the Twins in 1984. I'm not saying that Hicks is comparable to Gomez, The Puck, Hunter or Granderson, and in fact, those comparisons are almost laughable. Rather I'm trying to make the point that 25-years-old is not too old and it's premature to say that Hicks' career is doomed. Seven years is a long time for someone to play professional baseball and not "make it" but there are other examples of players who were late bloomers.

The other thing that Hicks has that is fairly unique at the Major League level (if it can fully translate) is his ability to draw walks. Aside from his stint as a rookie in the Majors, Hicks has always had a decent eye at the plate and owns a career .377 OBP in the Minors. Even this past season, which saw Hicks play in 69 games with the Major League club, Hicks had a 36:56 K:BB ratio and an OPS of .341 (despite a .215 BA). If he could hold a batting average closer to .270-.290 and hit with a little more power (.350-.400 SLG), that would be enough offensive production to make him an every-day center-fielder.

One thing that has mysteriously disappeared from Hicks' repertoire over the past couple of seasons is his base-stealing abilities. He was never a prolific base-stealer in the Minors, but from Rookie ball up through Double-A, he had double-digit steals every season and topped out with 32 stolen bases (11 CS) in 2012. Since 2012, he has barely utilized that talent, stealing a total of 17 bases between his time in the Majors AND Minors. Some might look at the stats and see that as a good thing given that Hicks' success rate in stealing isn't great (68% between the Majors and Minors), but he's got speed and, with time, can probably be coached to pick his spots better and bring that number closer to 75%, which would be just fine. For a guy who has the potential to be on-base as much as Hicks, re-discovering his ability to steal bases would increase his value greatly.

So where has Hicks gone wrong? I listen to Gleeman and the Geek fairly regularly and many times on their show/podcast, they have talked about how its quite possible that Hicks' development was actually stunted by the Twins and their mis-handling of Hicks over the past couple of seasons. First there was the move straight from Double-A in 2012, to Twins starting center fielder coming out of Spring Training in 2013. After his disastrous first few months as a rookie, the Twins (Gardenhire) publicly questioned Hicks' effort. Last season, the Twins again publicly questioned Hicks' work ethic and on-field production before demoting him to Triple-A in June (after a DL stint). The whole situation, whether merited or not, reminds me of Kevin Slowey's situation with the Twins a few years ago. For some reason, Hicks seems to have rubbed Twins management the wrong way and they haven't responded very well.

This coming season will really tell the story of whether Hicks has a future with the Minnesota Twins or not. Buxton is still another season away from the Bigs (at least) and so for the time-being, Hicks has a spot in Center Field. In my mind, there are 3 things he needs to do to prove himself and get back on the right track:

1.) Bring his overall average and power up. Through 538 PAs in the Majors, Hicks is sporting a .201/.293/.313 triple-slash and that just isn't going to cut it. Those numbers have to closer to .270/.350/.400 to make him a decent center-fielder and probably need to be more like .275/.360/.420 to make him worth a look at a corner-outfield position. This is all much easier said than done, but at the end of the day, without better production at the plate, it won't matter what other things he does.

2.) Make it so the Twins cannot question his work ethic. In my experience, if someone's work ethic is being questioned, chances are they deserve that kind of criticism. Whether someone works hard or not is usually fairly obvious and when it comes to baseball, I imagine it's slap-you-in-the-face obvious. If I'm Hicks, I understand the situation - that this may be my last legitimate shot to be an MLB-regular - and I respond by being the first one in and the last one out. I put in the work and make it obvious that I'm committed to getting better. Even if the results don't follow, you will impress management and they won't have the grounds to question your effort publicly. I obviously don't know Hicks personally and maybe he already has an excellent work ethic, but sometimes you have to make an effort to make it obvious. You've got a new manager now and so, in a sense, you have a clean(ish) slate. Take advantage.

3.) Forget the past. I have no idea how Hicks feels about how the Twins have handled his development but I wouldn't be surprised if he felt a little slighted. Start fresh this year. Take advantage of having Paul Molitor around day-in and day-out. Channel the Hicks from the Minor Leagues who use to draw walks at a 13-14% clip. Be aggressive on the base paths. Embrace the fact that he is a ground-ball and line-drive hitter (74.5% of his batted balls last year were were either GBs or LDs) who is never going to hit for a lot of power. His potential lies in his ability to get on-base.

It's highly possible that Hicks will never become the center-fielder that the Twins once thought he could be. So far, Hicks' off-season isn't going to well from a baseball standpoint. He was released from his Venezuelan League team just a few days ago after hitting a 2-for-21 slump. I heard the rumors last week that the Twins might be interested in bringing Torii Hunter back. I would be really curious to see how having Hunter around might help Hicks. I doubt it will happen but it's an interested "what if". One thing is clear, if Hicks doesn't find a way to produce more at the plate then he likely won't stick around with the Twins much longer.

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