The Twins have the luxury of doing what they think is best for the player. The only question is: what's the best thing?
Essentially it breaks down to this: who starts in center field on Opening Day should take a back seat to determining what would be the best decision regarding the development of an individual player.
I wrote that sentence almost five years ago to the day. In March of 2008, Twinkie Town ran a number of discussions on who was going to be their new center fielder. Torii Hunter had departed for the Angels five months prior, leaving the door open for the underwhelming prospect and once first round pick Denard Span, and the centerpiece in the return for Johan Santana, Carlos Gomez.
While the candidates themselves are in different situations to Span and Gomez five years ago, the Twins find themselves in a similar position this spring. Aaron Hicks has performed well in his 38 spring at-bats (13-for-38, 4 homers, with some fun defensive flashes) and it has us chomping at the bit. It doesn't help that Joe Benson has been underwhelming (8-for-37), and that Darin Mastroianni (7-for-18, 3 doubles, 1-to-1 strikeout to walk ratio) isn't perceived as an everyday center fielder among the fanbase.
More important than the numbers (because 13-for-38 isn't too far off from 8-for-37, and because lighting up Double-A pitchers in spring training who are trying to ramp up their fastball velocity isn't anything off of which to base a decision) is how the player has performed. It's easy to be seduced by Hicks' raw power a couple of weeks into spring training and ignore his 9-to-1 strikeout to walk ratio. It's easy to watch him score from first but not notice that he's only stolen one base.
The bigger question is this: what's best for Aaron Hicks?
The Twins are in a different position than they were five years ago. Their prospects of contending aren't nearly as optimistic (which is pretty relative considering how the team looked heading into '08 anyway), but the organization also has significantly deeper resources.
One of the biggest concerns for detractors of Hicks-for-President-of-Center-Field is that the Twins could delay free agency and Super-Two status by keeping him in Triple-A. By the rules of service time, keeping Hicks with the Red Wings through late April would keep him under team control through 2019. Keeping him with the Red Wings through mid-June would mean the Twins could keep him from being a Super-Two player following 2015 (via MLBTR). The same rules apply for Kyle Gibson.
My counter to this argument is that this isn't 2008. The Twins have significant financial resources, which means it's no longer necessary to delay service time simply to keep the payroll a little bit lower.
Minnesota's front office has the luxury, in the case of Aaron Hicks, to do the right thing for the player. If this means giving him the starting job in Center Field from Opening Day, they have the freedom and the resources to make that decision. If it means keeping him in Triple-A until the team feels that he's developed and matured to the point where he's ready, then they aren't jeopardizing the team's chances at October to make it happen.
There are no excuses for center field this year. Either Hicks earns the job and is awarded it, or he hasn't and can get his first plate appearance at Triple-A in April.