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Aaron Hicks: The Latest (and Greatest?) Twins Centerfield Prospect

Given their penchant for drafting raw, athletic high school outfielders, it is not surprising that the Twins have succesfully developed several good centerfielders over the past two decades. Two of their most recent success stories - Denard Span and Ben Revere - were both traded away for pitching reinforcements earlier this offseason, leaving a hole in centerfield that has yet to be definitely filled. That hole could be filled by the Twins's latest hot centerfield prospect, Aaron Hicks. There has been spirited discussion on this blog and elsewhere about Hicks's role on the team next season, and about what is the best development path for him and the Twins going forward.

I have felt very strongly that from financial and player development perspective, Hicks needs to start the year in AAA and demonstrate success in Rochester before he is promoted to the major league club. Part of my argument rests on service-time calculations - I would like to ensure an extra year of team control before free agency. Another part of my argument involves the fact that all of the Twins's previous centerfielders have struggled after the initial promotion to the big leagues. In order to bolster my argument, I researched the performance of the other centerfielders as prospects in with the expectation that Hicks will be just as likely to struggle as everyone else. Instead, I discovered that there is a strong argument to be made that Hicks is the Twins' best centerfield prospect of the past two decades.

I have decided to compare Hicks with the following four former Twins: Torii Hunter, Carlos Gomez, Denard Span, and Ben Revere. I will give a short prospect history about each, and then a quick comparison against Hicks at the same age and level. First, I will start with the next great Twins centerfielder.

Aaron Hicks

Year Age Tm Lev G PA AB H 2B 3B HR SB CS SB% BB BB% SO SO% BA OBP SLG OPS TB
2008 18 Twins Rk 45 204 173 55 10 4 4 12 2 86% 28 13.73% 32 15.69% 0.318 0.409 0.491 0.900 85
2009 19 Beloit A 67 297 251 63 15 3 4 10 8 56% 40 13.47% 55 18.52% 0.251 0.353 0.382 0.735 96
2010 20 Beloit A 115 518 423 118 27 6 8 21 11 66% 88 16.99% 112 21.62% 0.279 0.401 0.428 0.829 181
2011 21 Fort Myers A+ 122 528 443 107 31 5 5 17 9 65% 78 14.77% 110 20.83% 0.242 0.354 0.368 0.722 163
2012 22 New Britain AA 129 563 472 135 21 11 13 32 11 74% 79 14.03% 116 20.60% 0.286 0.384 0.460 0.844 217

Hicks was drafted with the 14th pick by the Twins in 2008. He was a high school selection, and other high school picks of note in that draft include Eric Hosmer (3rd) and Brett Lawrie (16th). After a strong showing in Rookie ball that year, he started 2009 rated as the #39 prospect by Baseball America and remained in their top-50 list through 2011. However, 2011 was a particularly poor performance for Hick in high A, and he dropped out of this top-100 list. However, he turned things around in a big way this past year in AA at New Britain, and re-emerged as a top-100 prospect in many of the lists posted so far this offseason.

His most recent season at AA is without a doubt his best season as a professional ballplayer. He hit for decent average, but with excellent on-base skills and good power. He stole lots of bases at a good rate, and had a slight improvement with his strikeout rate. And he did this while being at least two years younger than the average player in the league. How did this season stack up against the other Twins as prospects?

Torii Hunter

Drafted out of high school with the 20th pick in the 1993 draft, Hunter initially moved quickly through the Twins minor leagues, reaching AA in 1996 in his age-20 season. It was here that Hunter cracked his only top-100 list from BA, at #79. At this point Hunter's development temporarily stalled out, and he remained at AA in 1996, 1997 and most of 1998. Hunter never showed much power in the minors, never hitting more than 10 homers in a season. After less that 100 plate appearances in AAA, he started 1999 in the majors, spent the entire season there, and was barely above replacement level. He started 2000 there as well, but after barely batting .200 in the first two months, he was sent back down to AAA. During this demotion something finally clicked for Hunter, as he hit 18 homers in 55 games, and overall has a .368/.403/.727 line. He was called back up to the majors and was forevermore a 3+ WAR, .275, 20+ homer outfielder.

First AA Season

Player Year Age Tm G PA AB H 2B 3B HR XBH SB CS SB% BB BB% SO SO% BA OBP SLG OPS TB
Torii Hunter 1996 20 Hardware City 99 387 342 90 20 3 7 30 7 7 50% 28 7.24% 60 15.50% 0.263 0.331 0.401 0.731 137
Aaron Hicks 2012 22 New Britain 129 563 472 135 21 11 13 45 32 11 74% 79 14.03% 116 20.60% 0.286 0.384 0.460 0.844 217

In his first AA season, Hunter was just 20 years old, and had a decent year. It was this season that caused BA to rank him in their top-100. However, Hicks outperformed Hunter in every single category other than SO%, though the age difference make direct statistical comparison difficult.

Age 22

Player Year Age Tm G PA AB H 2B 3B HR XBH SB CS SB% BB BB% SO SO% BA OBP SLG OPS TB
Torii Hunter 1998 New Britain AA 82 338 308 87 24 3 6 33 11 9 55% 19 5.62% 64 18.93% 0.282 0.329 0.438 0.768 135
1998 Salt Lake AAA 26 97 92 31 7 0 4 11 2 2 50% 1 1.03% 13 13.40% 0.337 0.347 0.543 0.891 50
1998 MIN MLB 6 19 17 4 1 0 0 1 0 1 0% 2 10.53% 6 31.58% 0.235 0.316 0.294 0.610 5
Aaron Hicks 2012 New Britain AA 129 563 472 135 21 11 13 45 32 11 74% 79 14.03% 116 20.60% 0.286 0.384 0.460 0.844 217

At age 22, Hunter finally managed to get a mid-season promotion to AAA, and then played in a few games for the Twins. Comparing their AA number, Hicks hit for more power, higher after average, and walked at a much higher rate. The only area where Hunter edged Hicks is in SO%, though one could argue the difference is negligible.

Carlos Gomez

Gomez was signed out of the Dominican Republic by the Mets in 2002, and was quickly rushed through the Mets' farm system. He skipped high-A completely, and spent his age 20 season in AA. His good season at AA, combined with his young age, allowed him to break into the BA top-100 prospect list for 2007 as #60. The next season his started in AAA, but then was called up and played 58 games for the Mets. He was ranked #52 the next off-season, during which he traded from the Mets to the Twins as part of the Johan Santana trade. In 2008, he spent the entire season as the starting centerfielder for the Twins at the tender age of 22.

First AA Season

Player Year Age Tm G PA AB H 2B 3B HR XBH SB CS SB% BB BB% SO SO% BA OBP SLG OPS TB
Carlos Gomez 2006 20 Binghamton 120 486 430 121 24 8 7 39 41 9 82% 27 5.56% 97 19.96% 0.281 0.350 0.423 0.773 182
Aaron Hicks 2012 22 New Britain 129 563 472 135 21 11 13 45 32 11 74% 79 14.03% 116 20.60% 0.286 0.384 0.460 0.844 217

It is fairly clear that looking at the raw stat line, Hicks had a slightly better year than Gomez in their respective first years of AA. However, adjusting for age, it is no longer clear cut, and there is a strong argument to be made that Gomez was the better prospect. In fact, Gomez was ranked #60 after the season, while Hicks will be fortunate to be in the top-100 list at all.

Age 22

Player Year Tm Lev G PA AB H 2B 3B HR XBH SB CS SB% BB BB% SO SO% BA OBP SLG OPS TB
Carlos Gomez 2008 MIN MLB 153 614 577 149 24 7 7 38 33 11 75% 25 4.07% 142 23.13% 0.258 0.296 0.360 0.657 208
Aaron Hicks 2012 New Britain AA 129 563 472 135 21 11 13 45 32 11 74% 79 14.03% 116 20.60% 0.286 0.384 0.460 0.844 217

The drastic difference in level makes any comparison difficult between the two players, though I could make an argument that I'd prefer the player who has demonstrated success at the major league level over a player in AA.

Denard Span

While Gomez was the high-profile acquisition of the Santana trade and the heir apparent to Torii Hunter, Span was unspectacularly moving up the Twins farm system. Drafted straight out of high school with the 20th pick in the 2002 draft, Span moved slowly, and didn't reach AA until he was promoted in the middle of the 2005 season at the age of 21. During his accent through the minors, Span was rarely seen on any Twins top-10 prospect lists, much less on top-100 lists. After a full season in AAA in 2007, Span started 2008 with the Twins. However, he was sent down in late April after a .258/.324/.258 line in 34 plate appearances. At AAA, he absolutely raked, and was called back up on June 30th. He hit a stellar .297/.393/.449 for the remainder of the year.


Age 22 at AA

Player Year Tm Lev G PA AB H 2B 3B HR XBH SB CS SB% BB BB% SO SO% BA OBP SLG OPS TB
Denard Span 2006 New Britain AA 134 597 536 153 16 6 2 24 24 11 69% 40 6.70% 78 13.07% 0.285 0.340 0.349 0.689 187
Aaron Hicks 2012 New Britain AA 129 563 472 135 21 11 13 45 32 11 74% 79 14.03% 116 20.60% 0.286 0.384 0.460 0.844 217

Span's first full season in AA happened to also be his age-22 season, which allows for easy comparison with Hicks. Again, it is fairly obvious that Hicks had the better year: twice as many walks, more power, more stolen bases at a better success rate. The only knock against Hicks is his strikeout rate, which was significantly higher than Span's during his season.

Ben Revere

Revere was drafted in 2007 with the 28th pick out of high school. He was moved methodically through the Twins farm system - he spent one year at each level up through AA. From the very beginning, Revere could flat out put the bat on the ball. He rarely walked, rarely struck out, and didn't hit for much power; this profile stuck with him from rookie-ball all the way to the majors. He never hit less than .300 in the minors, and stole a lot of bases very successfully. A fantastic year in low-A at Beloit (when he hit .379) propelled him into BA's top-100 list at #59, though this would be his only appearance on this list. Revere made a cameo appearance in the big leagues in September of 2010, and then was called up again in May of 2011. He spent the rest of the season in the major, but hit only .267/.310/.309. He started the 2012 season in the majors, but was sent back to AAA twice in the spring for a total of 23 games before finally getting back to the majors to stay.

Age 22 at AA

Player Year Tm Lev G PA AB H 2B 3B HR XBH SB CS SB% BB BB% SO SO% BA OBP SLG OPS TB
Ben Revere 2010 New Britain AA 94 406 361 110 10 4 1 15 36 13 73% 32 7.88% 41 10.10% 0.305 0.371 0.363 0.734 131
Aaron Hicks 2012 New Britain AA 129 563 472 135 21 11 13 45 32 11 74% 79 14.03% 116 20.60% 0.286 0.384 0.460 0.844 217

Again, Revere and Hicks were both in AA during their age-22 seasons, which make direct comparison easier. Although Revere had a significantly higher batting average, Hicks's higher walk rate allows him to slightly exceed Revere in on-base percentage. Adding in Hick's power, and it becomes clear that he significantly outperformed Revere at the plate. In somewhat of a surprise, Hicks was just as successful at swiping bases as Revere, though Revere ended up with more stolen bases in significantly fewer plate appearances.

Conclusion

As I mentioned at the beginning, I started this research in order to bolster my argument that Hicks should NOT be the starting centerfielder for the Twins on Opening Day. I wanted to demonstrate that Hicks is no better than the other prospects at the same age and level, and they all initially struggled at the major league level. Instead, I discovered that last season Hicks was significantly better than any of those who have preceded him. No recent Twins centerfield prospect has displayed the combination of plate discipline and power that Hicks showed off last year. He has received strong reviews from his defense, and from a pedigree standpoint, Hicks has been ranked higher and more consistently than any of the other prospects. Other than maybe Gomez, I can't make an argument that I would prefer the 22-year-old version of any these former Twins over Hicks.

All that said, Hicks still has a few warning flags. His strikeout rate is at a Gomez-esque level, and it is still an open question as to whether this past season was just an outlier or the new baseline for him. However, I am now very excited about his future, and I'm looking forward to see him in a Twins uniform sometime this season. For service time and financial reasons, I still hope he isn't called up until June 1st, yet now I'm fairly optimistic that he will be able to step in and be reasonably productive on the major league stage. He will obviously have some struggles and need to make some adjustments, but he seems more prepared to succeed in his Twins debut than the centerfielders who proceeded him.

One last note: I'm looking forward to re-writing this same article about Byron Buxton in three years.

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