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Updated: March 7th, 2013 10:32pm
Mackey: Twins could save millions by slowing Hicks, who is mashing

Mackey: Twins could save millions by slowing Hicks, who is mashing

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by Phil Mackey
1500ESPN.com

Whoever runs the official minor league baseball Twitter account took advantage of what he or she thought was a great marketing opportunity on Thursday afternoon:

"Aaron Hicks has three homers today. Now's the time to get your @RocRedWings tickets to see him play."

Well, actually...

The Minnesota Twins spring training centerfield battle was encapsulated -- and perhaps decided -- by one 10-minute span in South Florida on Thursday afternoon.

Hicks, facing Philadelphia Phillies stud left-hander Cliff Lee in Clearwater, drove an 0-1 fastball the other way into the grassy knoll seating area for a leadoff home run.

Minutes later, meanwhile -- back in Fort Myers -- Joe Benson lost a fly ball in the sun with two outs in the top of the second inning, allowing the Red Sox to score a run.

Hicks went on to hit two more home runs, finishing 4-for-5 with six RBIs, four runs scored and a stolen base.

Benson went on to finish 0-for-4 at the plate with four strikeouts and a walk.

All of this while Darin Mastroianni continues to be sidelined by a strained hamstring.

With his barrage on Thursday, Hicks is now hitting .407 with four home runs, two doubles, 12 RBIs and nine runs scored in his first seven spring training games. That doesn't include an eighth game against Puerto Rico earlier this week in which Hicks blasted another home run.

Twins general manager Terry Ryan said last week he doesn't look at boxscores during spring training because the numbers can be very deceiving. Instead, he looks at players' tendencies, body language and other human factors that are better predictors of whether young players are ready to have sustainable success.

Well, even if Ryan didn't look at the boxscore in Clearwater, we can be fairly certain he's seen plenty of positive attributes from Hicks early on.

If the regular season started today, there is no logical reason why Hicks wouldn't be the Twins' starting centerfielder. Aside from the fact that Hicks has just flat-out outplayed his competition through the first two weeks of games, Benson suffered through a disastrous, injury-laden season at multiple minor league levels last year, and Mastroianni profiles as a very good fourth outfielder who will probably struggle at the plate if over-exposed to right-handed pitching.

If Hicks continues to play well in March, money and service time could be his only nemesis.

GMs would rarely, if ever, admit this on the record either way, but halting a player's service time clock is often a viable reason for holding off on a major league promotion. This is done mostly to ensure a player won't reach "Super-2" status -- meaning arbitration-eligible after only two years of service time instead of three. If a player has been on a major league roster for two full years to start his career, he will almost certainly reach Super-2 status.

The way entry-level baseball contracts work, players are under team control for the first six full years of service time -- three years of pre-arbitration, where teams pay players roughly $500,000 (which is why Mike Trout and his agent aren't happy), and three years of arbitration, where players can make millions more. Then, free agency.

In the Twins' case, keeping Hicks in Triple-A until June or so would likely ensure he doesn't become arbitration-eligible after only two years. It would also ensure a seventh year of service time.

No player earned more than $4.5 million in his first year of arbitration last year, and only seven players earned more than $3 million, so if Hicks makes the team, stays on the roster and turns out to be a legitimate player, it's likely the Twins would owe him approximately $3 million instead of $500,000 in his third year of service time (first year of arb).

But the real difference would come in his fourth arbitration year, when Hicks -- depending on how his career progresses -- could be making millions. Hunter Pence, for instance, is making $13.8 million in his fourth year of arbitration this year (as a former Super-2). Matt Garza will make $10.25 million as a fourth-year arb guy.

So, it's possible the Twins could save millions by holding Hicks back a month or two -- and an extra year of service time. Is that enough of a reason to send him to Rochester? Or, asked a different way, is putting Hicks on the 25-man roster for an extra two months to start the season worth paying millions more later?

Based on his play so far, there are no other justifiable reasons to keep him off the 25-man roster.

Phil Mackey is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Phil | @PhilMackey | Mackey & Judd
In this story: Joe Benson, Darin Mastroianni
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