Warne: Aaron Hicks typically has been a late bloomer in past seasons
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Regardless of which direction the Minnesota Twins go as the season progresses into June, the development of Aaron Hicks will be something that will be hot on the minds of everyone who has anything to do with the club.
At the very least, Hicks has shown a flair for the dramatic. He has on three occasions in recent weeks had tremendous efforts on both sides of the game.
What will be interesting to watch as the season goes on is if Hicks picks up steam as the days pass by. It's something Hicks did at Double-A New Britain last season. Entering play on May 31 of 2012, Hicks was hitting .246/.337/.406 and some scouting writers began wondering if the Twins should consider moving him to the mound.
From that point on, Hicks hit .310/.411/.492 and more or less showed enough for the Twins brass to feel safe trading away two solid center fielders.
So it's pretty safe to suggest that Hicks is a late bloomer. In fact, Hicks' best month every year by OPS as a minor leaguer has come in July or later.
But Hicks has an interesting theory on what he seems to have more success in the dog days of summer than early in the season.
"It's really about getting used to the level and the competition, and being able to make adjustments while you're doing it," Hicks said. "Every level I've went to has been a jump, and you have to get used to the guys you're playing around. The jump to Double-A is a big one, and I struggled in the beginning before I figured it out. That's what's been happening here."
A player who can certainly attest to that is Hicks' center field counterpart in the Twins recent series with the Milwaukee Brewers, Carlos Gomez, who appears to be an entirely different player than he was just two seasons ago.
Hicks has certainly taken notice.
"That's what's crazy about this game," Hicks said. "Guys can turn it around just like that. It's all about making adjustments, and he's obviously made them."
Hicks and Gomez have put on a bit of a show in the series, and it's worth wondering if there was some friendly competition between the two. Gomez even went so far as to tip his cap when Hicks robbed him of a home run Tuesday night in Milwaukee.
"He's sort of making it a competition," Hicks said. "It's more that he's been hitting some balls solid and that I've been in the right place at the right time, but it's been fun though. You have a little bit of that centerfield competition."
One thing is certain: The Twins are hoping Hicks' late-season trends continue and he can become the player the club feels he has the potential to be.
Swarzak shouldering a heavy load
The Twins bullpen has been overworked, and perhaps the most obvious case is right-hander Anthony Swarzak. Swarzak's 34 innings pitched through 50 games entering Thursday puts him on pace to throw roughly 110 innings this season. Brian Duensing threw 109 frames last year, but he also made 11 starts in addition to his 44 relief appearances. Swarzak threw over 100 in 2011, but he also made 11 starts that year.
The last Twins reliever to throw 100 innings as a strict reliever was Juan Berenguer back in 1990.
In other words, Swarzak is a bit of a throwback. And he wouldn't have it any other way.
"I love it to be honest with you," Swarzak said. "That's why I'm here. If the phone rings and they want me to get up, I'm all for it. Regardless of the situation or what they expect me to do, I'm willing to do it."
The move to the bullpen has resulted in a jump in Swarzak's strikeout rates for the second-consecutive season. This was a desired result, according to the 27-year-old righty.
"I told myself before the year started that I was going to try strike more people out," Swarzak said. "As a starter, I never really tried to strike people out. In some ways, I think I lost that fierce mentality to put someone away. So I said this year as a reliever I was going to strike people out; that's what good relievers do. So going into spring training, I tried to get my breaking ball a bit tighter and find ways to use the dirt a bit more with the breaking ball to get swings and misses that way. So far early on, it's been working."
But with 2013 being the first time Swarzak hasn't stretched out to be a starter, there has to be some worry about him wearing down as he looks likely to continue working in a long relief role.
Swarzak doesn't want to hear any of it.
"As a professional you can't worry about running out of gas," he said. "You've just gotta put the pedal to the floor and ride that wave as long as it lasts. That's what I'm doing now. I trust my work ethic -- off the field in the training room and the workout room -- to keep me healthy through September, and even October."
Dozier tweaks his swing
A mechanical adjustment has Brian Dozier thinking he'll be able to turn his season around. Since May 1, Dozier has hit .184/.215/.250 with just three extra-base hits and a 21/3 strikeouts-to-walks ratio.
It was a simple adjustment really: Dozier needed to get his front foot set faster. And while Dozier doesn't have a leg kick reminiscent of Kirby Puckett, or even a toe tap timing mechanism, he was simply lifting and dropping his front foot too slow to handle pitches that he says he's handled just fine in the past.
"You have to get your foot down, and through the help of Bruno and some film, we figured that out," Dozier said. "My foot was just hanging in the air, which caused me to not see the ball, and to have to start my swing earlier. So I had to react sooner rather than later. That was a big thing, and I'm glad I got a hold of it and made a big adjustment."
The biggest thing that stood out to Dozier was he wasn't able to handle pitches he usually had no trouble with, and also the trajectory of his batted balls.
"It was the fact that I was getting a lot of pitches to hit that I've been able to do something with when I was sitting on them, and I was missing them badly," Dozier said. "It was causing my barrel to drop and I started popping balls up -- stuff I never really had a problem with."
If Dozier's fourth inning home run off Brewers starter Kyle Lohse on Thursday night -- a 367-foot rocket to left field -- was any indicator, he's on the right path.
• The Twins promoted reliever Michael Tonkin to Triple-A after the right-hander fanned five Richmond Flying Squirrels in just two innings in his last Double-A appearance. Tonkin's first four outings in Double-A were a bit rocky -- five earned runs in 5.1 innings pitched -- but he had allowed just one earned run from that point on in 19 innings pitched (0.47 ERA) with 26 strikeouts and just five walks.
GM Terry Ryan has watched Tonkin closely, through reports and an east coast trip, and said the righty's performance dictated the move.
"He pitched pretty well at Double-A, and it was about time for him to come up to the next competition level," Ryan said. "He's got a good arm, and he works around the plate with a couple pitches he can command. He's got a very resilient arm. We put him on the 40-man roster for a reason; he's got plenty of stuff. It's just a matter of the next step."
• Speaking of relievers who have been on-point recently, Ryan Pressly has pitched himself into the good graces of manager Ron Gardenhire in May by allowing just two earned runs in 15.2 innings (1.15 ERA) while allowing an opponents batting line of .167/.233/.185 in that time frame. Perhaps most notably, Pressly ran a buzz saw through the Brewers 3-4-5 hitters Tuesday night in the 13th inning to nail down his second big league win.
As a result, the trust is there for Gardenhire to run Pressly out there in higher leverage situations than what his experience level might have dictated out of spring training.
"I like the way he's throwing the baseball," Gardenhire said. "We're not afraid to put him in a lot of different situations. We still like him because he can go eat some innings -- he and Swarzy have been our saviors as long guys -- but boy, he comes in there winging it pretty good right now. He can shut some people down. That bodes well for us being able to use him like we did the other night (in Milwaukee) in the late innings against some pretty good hitters."
Ryan also had plenty of compliments for the Rule-5 pickup, including most notably that Pressly has looked like anything but a first-time big leaguer.
"The other night (in Milwaukee) I was extremely impressed," Ryan said. "He came in against some good hitters and did a wonderful job when we needed it. He doesn't act or look like a Rule-5 pick, and that's about the best compliment I can give."
Ryan didn't stop there.
"The other compliment I can give him is that the manager doesn't seem to be afraid to put him in there in different situations. In the past we've had to protect some Rule-5 guys. Back in the day with Johan Santana, we didn't put him in many spots. We were trying to inch him along to make sure we could keep him."
To say Pressly has exceeded expectations would be fair. After missing on recent Rule-5 guys like Ryan Rowland-Smith, Terry Doyle, and almost having to give back Scott Diamond, it's been good for the organization to hit on one.
"When you take a Rule-5 guy, you never know what might happen when you put him in a situation where you're expecting him to perform," Ryan said. "This guy has done a pretty good job."
• Non-roster right-hander Lester Oliveros, whom the Twins non-tendered but re-signed as he works back from Tommy John surgery, is progressing nicely in his recovery down in Florida, according to Ryan.
'He's on about the same program Gibson was on a year ago," Ryan said. "He's doing alright. I just saw him. That (training) room down there is a bit more crowded than I like though. But he's had no setbacks and is doing fine."
Oliveros had the procedure in late August last year, and isn't expected to contribute this season.
• The Twins got a little national love on Thursday as CBS Sports national baseball reporter Jon Heyman penned a piece on the club's burgeoning farm system (link: http://www.cbssports.com/mlb/blog/jon-heyman/22327592/twins-on-way-back-with-future-stars-flourishing-farm-system). It's well worth a read, but some of the high points include a National League scout suggesting the Twins have the "best farm system in baseball" and a rival GM saying Byron Buxton is "a little like Mike Trout" and that Miguel Sano has "huge, huge power."
Hyperbole or not, the future is looking bright for the Twins.