Thursday, May 15, 2014

8 Years of Minnesota Twins Center Fielders: Part 4

This is the final part of a multi-part feature.  You can click the links for part 1, part 2 and part 3.  

After the 2012 season, the Twins decided that center field is overrated and traded both their incumbent center fielder and his potential replacement.  In trading Denard Span and Ben Revere, the Twins essentially turned over the starting job to Aaron Hicks, a former first-round pick who had a dynamic 2012 season, but with AA New Britain.  Could he seize the job that the Twins clearly wanted him to win?  Could he succeed while completely skipping AAA?

Hicks was spectacular in Spring and won the job.  The Twins were convinced that their 23-year-old starting center fielder would be their starting center fielder for a very long time.  He had all the tools.  He even got some comparisons to the player who started this tale, Torii Hunter.  Then, real games started.  Hicks was over-matched and passive from the start.  On April 20, just 13 games into his MLB career, Hicks was hitting .042/.179/.042.  Ouch.  He had just two hits! 

Hicks would show marginal improvements in May and June, but the hole that he dug in April was far too deep.  He missed time with a hamstring injury in June, which was enough time for Clete Thomas of all people to carve out a role on the team.  When Hicks went to the DL, he was starting to get things together.  He had a hit in nine of eleven games and his batting line had reached .179/.249/.326.  That's still putrid, but did you see the line in the previous paragraph? 

When Hicks returned from that hamstring injury in July, he got hot, hitting .400 in his first seven games back.  It didn't last.  He would hit .152 from that moment until August 1, when he was sent to Rochester for the remainder of the season.  Clete Thomas, who famously hit a home run in his first at-bat as a Twin, was not a solution.  He hit .214 in 2013, although he did so without batting gloves, so that's admirable. 

While all this chaos and Clete Thomas was going on, Byron Buxton was dominating in the Minors.  Buxton crushed Low-A pitching to the tune of .341/.431/.559, earning a promotion in late June.  He picked up right where he left off in High-A, batting .326/.415/.472 in 57 games as a 19-year-old in his first full season of professional baseball.  In all, he finished the 2013 season with 19 doubles, 12 home runs, 18 freaking triples and 55 stolen bases.  He also made many highlight reel-catches and countless fans in the prospect community.  The present in center was down, but the future was blindingly bright.    

Back to reality for a little while though.  Clete Thomas was still the Twins' starting center fielder.  Yikes.  When the August trade deadline arrived, the Twins used one of their M&M chips to land Alex Presley, another serviceable 4th outfielder, but hardly a long-term option in center.  Given an opportunity as an everyday center fielder, Presley wasn't terrible.  He hit .283 for the Twins in September and he seemed like the logical choice to start in center in 2014.  If nothing else, he could start the season while Hicks gets some AAA at-bats under his belt.  After that, he can slide into a 4th outfielder role quite nicely.  It wasn't the return fans wanted for Justin Morneau, but it could work out fine. 

Unless your memory is shot, you know this isn't how it all worked out.  Hicks missed time to start Spring Training in 2014, but came back soon enough to reclaim his job as the Twins' starting center fielder.  In fact, the Twins were so confident in Hicks that they placed Presley on waivers and lost him to the Astros.  It was a surprising move, considering Hicks's track record, the uninspiring option to back him up (Jason Bartlett) and the fact that Presley was not terrible just one month prior. 

Bartlett barely made it through one game before an injury forced the Twins to add Darin Mastroianni back to the active roster to serve as a 4th outfielder.  Bartlett was never going to see extended time in center, as Ron Gardenhire basically said that Hicks would play every single game, but a backup was still needed  Of course, Mastroianni became expendable when the Twins claimed Sam Fuld off of waivers from the As.  Mastroianni was lost to the Blue Jays, the organization that the Twins claimed him from in 2012.  What a whirlwind! 

Fuld is absolutely a stereotypical Ron Gardenhire player.  He's short, he plays hard and he makes the most of his ability.  Translation:  he's not really that good, but he tries!  His best fit is as a 4th outfielder.  He can handle center, but he's better in the corners.  He's not a great hitter, although he's capable.  He shouldn't be starting in place of a younger, more talented player.  However, Aaron Hicks is currently hitting under .200 again and looks just as lost this season as he did last season, so maybe Fuld should be starting.  

When Fuld joined the team, Hicks was healthy.  However, it certainly appeared that Hicks had at least temporarily lost his full-time job.  Hicks and Fuld alternated starts in center in their first five games as teammates, with Fuld starting three.  Hicks started both games of a doubleheader, but suffered a concussion in the second game and had to leave early.  He was placed on the 7-day disabled list and returned last weekend.  Fuld is now on the 7-day DL himself.  Hicks has been brutal since his return.  Eduardo Escobar and Danny Santana have seen time in center.  What is going on here!!!!!

Hicks couldn't hold off Clete Thomas last year, so maybe Fuld takes over as the starter upon his return.  Maybe Sam Fuld is the final link in the chain between Torii Hunter and Byron Buxton.  Maybe Aaron Hicks's future is as a serviceable 4th outfielder just like those who have been replacing him over the last two seasons.  Optimistically, maybe Hicks starts to heat up.  Maybe this time he keeps improving and the Twins can return to the days of having two center fielders in the outfield.  The thought of Hicks and Buxton in the same outfield is very enticing.  

Pessimistically, maybe there's still a few more ho-hum center fielders left between now and Buxton.  Perhaps there are some guys we aren't even aware of right now, like a month ago when we weren't aware of Sam Fuld.  The question is, how did the Twins get here?  How did they survive the loss of Torii Hunter, the bust that was Carlos Gomez as a Twin, and the Denard Span concussion scare and still end up with such a message center field situation, just two short years later? 

Should the Twins have simply signed Hunter to another long-term deal?  I'm not so sure that made sense at the time.  With Span and Ben Revere in the system, it made sense to save some money knowing that Joe Mauer was due a contract in the very near future and Hunter's position seemed reasonably simple to fill.  In fact, the Twins were right, as Span was nearly as good as Hunter, for a fraction of the price.  

Should the Twins have hung on to Carlos Gomez?  That's an easy decision in hindsight, but it's also easy to forget that Gomez wasn't just bad again in 2010, but bad in 2011 and bad for the first half of 2012.  Now you're asking the Twins to keep a bad hitter on the team for four and a half years, just hoping that one day he'll miraculously figure things out.  It sounds crazy on paper, even though that's pretty much exactly what happened for Gomez.

Should the Twins have kept Denard Span and/or Ben Revere?  Maybe, but then they wouldn't have one or two extremely exciting young pitchers on the cusp of MLB debuts.  With Span and/or Revere and no Alex Meyer and/or Trevor May, the future is not nearly as bright as it is right now.  Those two pitchers could make up 40% of the rotation for the next five years, while Span and Revere have both produced less since leaving Minnesota. 

Should the Twins have been more patient with Aaron Hicks?  Yes, for sure, but that's another easy choice when we already know how much he's struggled so far.  He obviously needed more time in the Minors and ideally, he would have spent all of 2013 in AAA, but that didn't happen.  At this point, the Twins need to figure out if Hicks can hit MLB pitching.  If he can't do it in 2014, it's hard to make the case that he'll ever be able to. 

By eliminating all of the possible reasons why the Twins are in this situation, we're left with reality:  sometimes things don't work out.  The Twins have an amazing prospect who might be just one or so seasons from joining the team.  Of course, he's on the Minor League DL right now, but that's only temporary.  Even so, with all the turmoil in center for the Twins over the last several years, it's hard to keep from bashing your head through the wall with the news of Buxton's seemingly never-ending wrist injury.

Even so, having a guy like Buxton in the system gives the Twins a bright future at one of the most important positions on the diamond.  Will Buxton finally end the madness in center field after seven long years?  That part can't be written right now, but for the Twins organization and for Twins fans, they have to hope the story has a happy ending.   


  1. I remember reading last year about Hicks' splits L vs R. Perhaps he could hit RH pitching better as a RH batter than he has hit as a LH batter.

    1. Yeah, I've resisted that movement because there aren't a lot of success stories related to guys giving up switch hitting. That said, if he's still hitting .175 in September, it might be a worthwhile experiment.

  2. Hey, Hicks had a massive hit today! Hopefully that will give him a bit of confidence to turn things around.

    About Gomez, as a Twin, he was a poor man's Yasiel Puig. Sometimes making breathtaking plays, other times, being a total knucklehead. I know it was far from the only thing that went wrong in that series, but yeah, that baserunning blunder in the 2009 ALDS really felt like it sank the ship, and he was hard to hang on to after that.

    1. I would love nothing more than for Hicks to explode for a little while, silence everyone and establish himself. I hate that his personality is being questioned.

      Yeah, I think trading Gomez was a great idea. JJ Hardy was a good player. If they had kept Hardy, I doubt anyone would care that Gomez was gone.

    2. But, hey, the Twins did get Jim Hoey when they traded Hardy, so it wasn't all bad! (sob) Who can forget those 24.2 innings he threw in 2011? (sniff) That stellar 1.905 WHIP? (tears)

    3. Oh man, I almost feel bad for Hoey because he was so awful and Hardy was so great in 2011 that it was just the perfect storm. Hoey will long be one of those guys who gets remembered not very fondly.

  3. Brad:

    Wasn't the Hunter situation three years versus four years? The Twins could have extended him for 4 more years years (at @ $15M) if they signed him in '06, but they offered 3 because they didn't think he would stay good/healthy for 4 more years?

    And Span was anything but a shoe-in then? Which is why they got not-ready Gomez for Santana? Hunter's OPS+s through 2011 would have looked pretty nice. And Span could have still started in left in 2008.

    It would have made your interesting story shorter, though.

    1. I think that if the Twins could have signed Hunter through 2010, it would have been a good idea. I think Hunter wanted more than 3 years (or 4 in 2006). Plus, Hunter had his three best offensive seasons after leaving the Twins, which I have to admit I did not see coming. Of course, losing Hunter meant trading for Delmon Young and therefore, losing Matt Garza. Although, that's all a chain reaction, so who knows how things would have been different if the Twins had retained Hunter. In hindsight, they should have. At the time, I know I was happy he left.

      If I remember correctly, Span was viewed as a bust in 2007. The Twins were extremely lucky that he suddenly developed after Hunter left. The reality is that the Twins model calls for young guys to take the place of expensive older players. If they believe in the model, they trade Hunter and promote Span. I'm not sure it's a perfect model, but it's worked in the past.

    2. Hi Brad, and thanks for writing. This is what I was writing about in my comment in part 1. Hunter was having the best half season of his career in 2006. To me he obviously had overcome his biggest weaknesses: his inability to take a first pitch or lay off the high cheese. He was on his way to hitting 31 home runs. And Aaron Gleeman and others could not stop beating the drum to let Hunter go - or low-ball him because Hunter was lippy or injury-prone or old (? as best I could tell). I was so frustrated - especially because Gleeman had done the same thing with Ortiz in 2002. (Saying Matthew LeCroy was better. Hey!) It took me awhile to forgive him. But I must never forget.

    3. I gotcha now. Although, if I'd had a blog, I'd have probably advocated letting Hunter walk too. I just didn't think he was worth it, but I was clearly wrong. Him being lippy would have only made me want to keep him more. I love lippiness.