Much has been made of the three-man competition that's likely to occur during Spring Training. Joe Benson, Darin Mastroianni and Aaron Hicks will all be in the mix to open the season as the Twins' center fielder. Most people have assumed that Mastroianni will end up in center on Opening Day with Hicks going to Triple-A and eventually earning the job.
Ron Gardenhire was on Talkin' Twins with Phil Mackey and Tom Pelissero of 1500 ESPN on Monday, however, and he had some strong praise for Hicks. Gardenhire made it clear that he's hoping Hicks takes the opening and runs with it::
"As I told Terry when all these things were going on -- Span, and then Revere ... the one thing I'd asked is that I just want to make sure that Aaron Hicks has the opportunity to come into Spring Training if we trade Span and end up trading Revere too ... I want the opportunity to give him a shot at my center field job. This kid can run it down, he's got a cannon, he's a very talented kid, he had a heck of a year at Double-A. Who knows if he's ready offensively? But I don't want to go into Spring Training saying he has no chance to be here or he's not ready for this. I want to see what he can do ... It'll be interesting to see how Hicksky handles all of this. I think we've got to give him a really solid look here."
(Of course Gardy's nickname for Hicks is going to be "Hicksy.")
Anyhow, Gardy also briefly mentioned that they want to get a look at Benson again. He talked about how they know what "Masto" can do in center field and said he's capable of handling the position at the Major League level. However, Gardenhire didn't come clause to lauding either player like he did Hicks. And he shouldn't have, really.
Mastroianni proved to be an incredibly savvy pickup for Terry Ryan last offseason and was among the game's best fourth outfielders last year. But he's 27 years old already and isn't a guy who's ever been projected to be much more than that. Benson at one time was, but he'll have to prove that last season's host of injuries and mental breakdowns at the plate were a one-year fluke.
Hicks will re-emerge on all of the major prospect outlets' Top 100 lists this season. He's already ranked No. 59 overall at MLB.com, and I wouldn't be surprised to see him rank higher with Baseball America and/or Baseball Prospectus.
I'm not sure how much sense it makes, though, for Hicks to break camp with the team even if he does have a monster Spring Training. The Twins can stash him at Triple-A for the early portion of the season in order to delay his free agency by a year. Is the benefit of boosting Hicks' confidence and the excitement among fans at seeing him in the Opening Day lineup enough to outweigh controlling him for an extra season? If the Twins were serious about contending in 2013, I'd say yes, but we know that's an unlikely scenario.
We've seen in the past what the extra motivation of being sent down to Triple-A at the end of camp can do for a player (Denard Span), though last season Benson registered on the other end of that spectrum in 2012. No one wants to see that happen with Hicks.
I'd love at some point in 2013 to see both Hicks and Benson in the outfield for the Twins. Benson's long been a prospect favorite of mine, and Hicks probably has the highest ceiling of any outfielder in the organization aside from Byron Buxton. It may be another lost season for Twins fans, but at least the time has come for some of the names we've been hearing to get a chance to stick. That's already more excitement than we had in 2012.
Closing out with a poll, because why not?