Mackey: Reality has slapped overmatched Aaron Hicks in the face
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Aaron Hicks is proving once again why spring training performances forecast very little.
Luke Hughes reminded us last year, hitting .303/.347/.636 with a team-leading six home runs and 20 RBIs. Three weeks into April, Hughes was designated for assignment by the Twins, then again by the A's in July after plummeting to Double-A.
Remember Jake Fox in 2011? Fox hit 10 home runs in spring training for the Baltimore Orioles, but he tallied just nine hits in April and May combined, leading to his demotion. Fox has not sniffed the major leagues since 2011.
And this year it was Hicks, who made headlines by hitting three bombs in Clearwater on March 7. Hicks finished spring training with a .370/.407/.644 batting line, including 11 extra-base hits, 18 RBIs and 18 runs scored.
Minnesota Twins manager Ron Gardenhire made GM Terry Ryan promise him one thing this winter should the general manager trade away Denard Span and Ben Revere -- give Hicks a fair chance to win the starting centerfield job.
Gardenhire got his wish, and Hicks certainly earned the job.
But reality has slapped Hicks hard in the face through the first eight games of the season. The 23-year-old, playing above Double-A for the first time in his life, has reached base just four times in 37 plate appearances (.057/.108/.057) and looks completely lost at the plate.
Hicks is currently tied for the major league lead in strikeouts with Houston's Chris Carter, who also has three home runs. Hicks also has drawn just two walks in those 37 plate appearances, which is uncharacteristic for a guy who coaxed 313 free passes in four years in the minors. And in Hicks' 37 trips, he has fallen behind 0-1 in the count an astounding 26 times.
When hitting left-handed, it looks as if Hicks is trying to hit every pitch 450 feet. Instead, he creates 45-mph wind gusts.
Gardenhire and Ryan have been adamant through the season's first 10 days that they will be patient with Hicks, but at some point taking dejected, empty hacks while trying to keep from drowning is detrimental to his career. There are no mental reference points in his head for success at the big league level -- unlike for a slumping Joe Mauer, who has a track record of hitting .315 -- which makes it even more difficult to turn the tide.
Gardenhire apparently was boiling mad after Wednesday night's loss to the Kansas City Royals -- not because Hicks struck out three more times, giving him a major-league leading 16 strikeouts in 37 trips -- but instead because he didn't run out a pop up in the top of the seventh inning.
"I can't handle that," Gardenhire told the Pioneer Press. "I haven't talked to him about it because I always have to calm down before I talk to people. Not finishing, not running that ball out, hesitating, kind of slowing up -- that bothers me an awful lot. ...
"I don't care what you're doing on a baseball field. It takes no talent whatsoever to hustle, and he didn't finish running out. We finish balls off. We always run. That's probably part of the frustration factor, but I can't live with that. I'll have my conversation with him."
The semantics of the play are debatable. Hicks did, after all, wind up on second base after Royals center fielder Lorenzo Cain saw the ball glance off his glove in shallow center. Even if he sprinted out of the box, it's a stretch to expect that Hicks could have made it to third base.
It's true that Hicks did not sprint out of the batter's box -- a first-degree violation of the "Twins' Way." But he wasn't being lazy. He wasn't loafing. He wasn't spitting on the shoes of the baseball gods.
If you want to see someone loaf out of the batter's box, see Alexi Casilla's game-ending groundout in the Baltimore series.
No. It appears obvious Hicks found himself caught up, for a brief second, in one of those, "oh my god, I can't believe I hit another (bleeping) pop up" moments of frustration -- a compilation of perhaps the most exasperating eight-game stretch of his young professional career.
Here's Hicks, given a golden opportunity to be this franchise's next torch carrier in a long line of really, really good centerfielders -- an opportunity that likely never even entered his mind as recently as November, when Revere and Span still blocked his path.
And he's 2-for-37, 0-for-5, and popping up weakly to shallow center. Again.
Most humans with a pulse would slump their shoulders in that moment.
The Twins don't have many viable replacements in center field -- Clete Thomas, currently in Triple-A, has been a mediocre hitter in the minors, and Darin Mastroianni is definitely more of a fourth outfielder -- and one week's worth of games is usually way too small of a sample size to make any grand judgments.
But if Hicks doesn't square up a few balls this weekend the Twins will have almost no choice but to put him out of his misery and onto a flight to Rochester.