Aaron Hicks has made quite the impression this Spring, following a strong ending to his 2012 season at Double-A. Hicks has produced a .407/.393/.926 slash line with four home runs and 12 RBI in 27 at-bats (and this excludes a home run he hit in a WBC warm up game). That's a statement type performance and both the Twins and fantasy leaguers have taken note. With the Twins shipping off Denard Span and Ben Revere, it looks like Hicks has a clear path to playing time when the Twins decide he's ready. Only Darin Mastroianni stands in his way as far as centerfielders in the organization go. That said, it's also important to remember that spring training stats aren't worth much because of small sample sizes, the talent faced and many other reasons.
Of course, it's important to be ahead of the curve on identifying breakout players, that doesn't mean we should go overboard in assigning value to certain guys though. Hicks hits all the check marks that people look for. He has pedigree as a first round pick (and a highly thought of one at that), who was phenomenal in his first taste of professional play, in rookie ball at age 18. Hicks has faced his struggles in the minors though, and seems to have an off year followed by an on year, making him something of a post-hype sleeper entering this year. Of course that sleeper label disappears with every home run (wind-aided or not) he hits this Spring. That said, it seems people think they are getting Hicks at a discounted value when they're not. He's got pedigree and he has the tools to back that pedigree up. He has the opportunity for extended playing time and in keeper and dynasty leagues, he's getting owners quite excited.
Allow me to play the wet blanket here, but I'm going to start it with a confession. I love Aaron Hicks. I wanted the Los Angeles Dodgers (my favorite team) to select him, only to see Minnesota snag him with the pick prior, leaving LA to select Ethan Martin, and well...that's a story for another day. I love that Hicks can show power, speed, defense and an approach. Unsurprisingly, the question on Hicks relates to his hit tool. In his three good minor league seasons, Hicks has hit .318, .279, and .286. In his bad ones he's hit .251 and .242. Batting average certainly doesn't tell the whole story, but he's OPSed 800+ in each of the good ones and below 740 in the poor ones.
I should also point out that Minnesota has been deliberate with Hicks thus far, giving him a year plus at Lo-A, a full season at Hi-A and a full season at Double-A. When you consider that he would be skipping Triple-A entirely, you should also expect an adjustment period that could be quite lengthy. That's not to say Hicks can't produce immediately, because he can. He has an advanced approach at the plate and that generally translates well to the major leagues. At the same time, scouts have noticed that he's struggled at identifying breaking balls in the past and while he made progress in that respect towards the end of last season, which contributed to his improved stats, he hasn't seen the same quality of breaking balls that he's going to see in the major leagues.
It's also important to note that great spring performances or not, most of these players are exactly the same players they were when the season ended in September/October. To that end, let's see what some of the experts were saying regarding Hicks at seasons' end.
Jason Parks wrote about Hicks in the Baseball Prospectus Minnesota Twins Top 10 Prospects in November:
...Hicks is inching closer to the final level, but a stop in Triple-A would be beneficial to the 23-year-old.
After playing winter ball in Venezuela, he'll head to Triple-A.
That's certainly just two opinions, but they are the opinions from two of the most trusted sources in terms of evaluating prospects. Both opinions were that Hicks would spend some time at Triple-A either due to circumstance or because it was necessary. 27 spring training at-bats should alter the evaluation on Hicks that was cultivated over the last season. Hicks definitely displayed progress in his development and that progress bore itself out in the statistics towards the end of 2012, and continues to do so to start 2013. The Twins decision to ship out two center field options and leave themselves thin at the major league level shouldn't have an impact on Hicks development or timetable, but it appears that it will, as Rhett Bollinger, the Twins beat reporter for MLB.com reports:
#MNTwins GM Terry Ryan on whether service time/arbitration will play role in whether Hicks makes team: "Not here."— Rhett Bollinger (@RhettBollinger) March 8, 2013
So while the Twins may give Hicks the opportunity to start the season in Minnesota, that doesn't mean you should follow suit. Hicks isn't completely developed and I would anticipate a slow start to the season. His tools are tempting as he shows above-average raw power and above-average speed, but he won't get to put those to use if he doesn't make contact and he doesn't get on base. His approach may help him with the latter, but major league pitchers should be able to exploit the former, at least at the start of the season. Aaron Hicks is an exciting prospect and Twins fans should look forward to him manning centerfield for years to come. Fantasy owners may want to wait a year before investing though, as I expect his first season to come with it's fair share of bumps and bruises.
For more on Aaron Hicks and all things Twins, check out SBN's Twinkie Town
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