Wednesday, February 12, 2014

14 Minnesota Twins to Watch in '14: Aaron Hicks

Young players are captivating.  They come up from the Minor Leagues full of promise, talent and excitement.  They haven't failed yet, at least not in the public eye, so anything is possible.  When a young rookie comes out of nowhere, it energizes a fan base.  We can dream of where that young player can take our favorite team. 

When a young rookie struggles, it frustrates a fan base.  We question whether the player "has what it takes" and we get antsy when they don't show the promise that accompanies their fanfare.  We understand that growing pains are normal, but that doesn't make them any less painful for fans and the player alike.  One Twins player experienced a lifetime of growing pains last season. 

The 9th most important Twins player in 2014 is Aaron Hicks.

Who is he? 

Hicks was the Twins first-round pick back in 2008.  He is a that archetypal five-tool player, with great speed, good power, capable hitting ability, solid defensive chops and a cannon arm.  Hicks was spectacular in 2012, hitting .286/.364/.460 in his first season with AA New Britain.  He carried that dynamic play into 2013 Spring Training, hitting balls all over the place and impressing the Twins enough to win the starting center field job.

Then, the actual MLB season started.  Before you could properly affix a pink backpack, Hicks was hitting .042/.179/.042, a seemingly impossible hitting line.  It was April 20 and Hicks had struck out in a staggering 36% of his plate appearances.  He had 2 hits.  Two.  He had walked a handful of times, but he wasn't being aggressive at the plate.  In addition, his defense was shaky, possibly because he was taking his hitting into the field with him (not literally, although that would explain his lack of success).  Hicks played better in May, but suffered a hamstring injury in June.  He languished through July and was sent to AAA on August 1.  He was not a part of September call-ups.  He did not excite in AAA.   

Why is he important?

Hicks has had just one bad MLB season.  Sure, he's had just one MLB season period, but it's still a valid point.  Hicks is only 24.  He's still just as talented as he was one year ago.  Now, he's had a taste of AAA and MLB pitching.  The Twins current center fielder (Alex Presley) is nothing special and not on Hicks' level when it comes to pure talent. 

Basically, there's a reason why Hicks was the starting center fielder last April.  He's a good defensive outfielder, and even in his miserable 2013 season, he flashed some of that defensive prowess and made some truly exceptional catches.  He also showed flashes at the plate, flexing some power and showing the willingness to take a walk.  He utilized his speed to the tune of nine stolen bases and three triples.  Hicks has the ability to do all of those things more consistently.  A player with those abilities is very valuable, especially at Hicks' age/price.

Paul the Positive Puma's Take:

It's hard to sugarcoat Aaron Hicks' rookie season.  Beyond a few spectacular moments, it was mostly a disaster.  That said, I do see a few things that keep me optimistic.  First, Hicks completely skipped AAA heading into 2013.  Many players do this, but I'm guessing that many struggle in the process.  In addition, Hicks was good with New Britain in 2012, but he wasn't a dynamo.  It was very reasonable to predict that he would struggle to adjust at first.  It should be no surprise that he struggled.

Second, he actually wasn't terrible after April 20th.  In fact, from April 20 and on, he posted a .223/.272/.399 batting line.  Now, that's not anything special, but it's a lot better than .192/.256/.338 (his season total).  His first 13 MLB games really tainted this pool.  In addition, he struck out in 36% of his at-bats in those first 13 games.  From then on?  25% strikeout rate.  That's still really high, but it does demonstrate some level of improvement.  If Hicks was hitting .223 on August 1, do you think he gets sent down?  I'm not so sure.

One last point.  Compare that .223/.272/.399 line from April 20 on to Oswaldo Arcia's successful rookie line of .251/.304/.430.  Arcia was basically thirty points better than Hicks across the board.  Arcia had a .336 BABIP in 2013 and Hicks had a .241 BABIP.  If you watched the two last year, it was pretty clear who was better.  Arcia hit the ball hard when he made contact and Hicks generally didn't.  That said, a one-hundred point BABIP disparity is pretty crazy and the reality for both players might be closer than it appears.  I don't think Arcia regresses, I think Hicks gets better. 

Peter the Pessimistic Puma's Take:

I just can't get the image of Aaron Hicks looking completely lost out of my head.  I wanted to believe in him.  I was so upset that the Twins traded Denard Span AND Ben Revere; I really wanted Hicks to produce at their level.  When I watched him hit (or try to hit, I should say), he just looked passive.  Some will cite his willingness to take a walk, but I'd call it a desperation to take a walk, so that he didn't have to swing and dribble a grounder to second or miss completely and head back to the bench. 

I suppose he can't get any worse, so that's something.  If he can get worse, then this better be his last chance.  Even so, I can't sit through another season of flailing at-bats.  If he looks even remotely lost during Spring Training, he has to go to AAA.  If he does, then the Twins' 9th most important player is playing for Rochester at age 24.  Alex Presley might not have upside, but at least he was competent last September.  I'd prefer Presley to Hicks in 2014 and I'm not sure Hicks would be in my plans going forward, unless something dramatic changes. 

What to look for in '14:

I loathe armchair psychology.  Trying to diagnose someone from your sofa is a useless endeavor.  That said, it will be interesting to try to figure out what's going on in Aaron Hicks' head next season.  At times in 2013, Hicks looked completely lost.  He looked defeated even.  How will he look in 2014?  Odds are, we won't see Hicks right away.  I imagine he'll start his season with Rochester.  Hopefully, he'll play well, earn a promotion and rejoin the Twins. 

Upon his return, it will be really interesting to watch his body language, facial responses and more importantly, his approach at the plate.  If he looks engaged and aggressive, then he could start the "dynamic player" portion of his career.  Hopefully, he'll attack the ball at the plate and in the field.  He'll take a walk, but as a result of a good eye, not a frightened will.  He'll make a spectacular catch, but not because he took a bad route.  It's impossible to get into a player's head, but players give hints.  If Hicks can conquer the mental element of adjusting to better players, then his talent can take him a long way.  

I'll be back next week with the 8th most important Twins player in 2014.  Have a nice day, everyone!

If you haven't been paying close attention, I'm counting down the 14 most important Twins players for the 2014 season.  This was just one part in a 14-part series.  If you missed any of the previous installments, just click here as I have put them all in one nice, tidy location for you.  I'm the best.

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