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Updated: February 13th, 2013 6:05pm
Zulgad: Offseason deals leave door open for Aaron Hicks to win job

Zulgad: Offseason deals leave door open for Aaron Hicks to win job

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by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com

FORT MYERS, Fla. - In the aftermath of dealing Ben Revere to the Philadelphia Phillies in early December for pitchers Vance Worley and Trevor May, Minnesota Twins general manager Terry Ryan had to make a few phone calls.

One went to manager Ron Gardenhire to inform him the guy the Twins had thought would take Denard Span's place in center field instead was headed to the National League.

Another one of Ryan's calls went to Aaron Hicks.

While Gardenhire might have been perplexed by the news Ryan delivered, Hicks had to be ecstatic.

"Terry Ryan called," Hicks said Wednesday. "He said he'd made some trades that would be better for the team and just to come to spring training ready to go, ready to compete for the job. ... As far as how I reacted, for me, I've always wanted to compete. All I want to do is give myself the chance to be on a big-league team someday."

The trades of Span to Washington and Revere to the Phillies, have cleared the path for Hicks far earlier than anyone expected.

The center field job is a wide-open competition and that's one reason why the three guys expected to try to win the spot, Hicks, Joe Benson and Darin Mastroianni, already were at Hammond Stadium on Wednesday, two days before position players were required to report.

Hicks, the 14th-overall pick in the 2008 Major League draft, is attempting to make the jump from Double-AA to the majors without ever playing a game at Triple-A Rochester.

Asked to describe his style, the switch-hitting Hicks said: "I've got power from both sides. Right more. I'm more of a line drive guy, I like to run around bases. I've definitely been working hard on my steals and my jumps in the outfield. I'm a defensive guy, I like to throw guys out. I pride myself on defense and have a lot of fun taking hits away from guys and seeing their reactions after I do it."

Last season, Hicks hit .286, with 21 doubles, 11 triples, 13 home runs, 32 stolen bases and 61 RBI in Double-A New Britain. His performance impressed the Twins, but he also knows he can't enter spring training on a mission to prove he can replicate that performance in the big leagues.

That type of pressure would be counterproductive and isn't what the Twins want from the 23-year-old. Hicks confirmed that since his conversation with Ryan he has given thought to how he will approach spring training. He plans on making every attempt not to pressure himself, although that's easier said than done.

"For me this is the best game ever," he said. "It's fun and that's how I'm going to go about it. I'm just going to go out, while I'm here, I'm going to have fun being with the big club. If I just so happen to be the Opening Day starter that's just a bonus. As of right now, I'm just trying to get ready for a long season and try to keep my body healthy and ready to go."

Truth be told, if this completion goes the way the Twins want it to, it likely will come down to Hicks and Benson pushing each other. Benson is coming off a disappointing and injury-plagued 2012 in which he hit .179 in 28 games at Rochester and .184 in 37 games at New Britain. He was demoted from Triple-A to Double-A in May after making the climb to the big leagues in 2011.

Mastroianni, who made the jump from New Britain to the Twins last season and hit .252 with three homers, 17 RBI and 21 stolen bases in 77 games with the big-league club, could win the job but might be more valuable as a fourth outfielder.

Hicks is a well-spoken and soft-spoken young man who doesn't appear to be lacking any confidence but clearly wants to choose his words carefully. He also seems to be a realist. Asked about what would be the most difficult part of a jump to the Twins, Hicks immediately pointed to being consistent at the plate.

"Showing the organization that I'm going to be reliable at the leadoff hole or wherever I'm going to be at," he said. "That's the most important (thing). Teams really look at it to see if a guy is consistent or not. Stay away from the peaks and valleys. ... The thing about being consistent, though, is you are going to at some point hit a down but it's what you do to get back. Back to being consistent again."

Hicks, or whoever wins the center field job, also could be very busy chasing after fly balls at Target Field this spring and summer. Josh Willingham provides a big bat in left field but has little range and Chris Parmelee is a first baseman who could end up as the short-term solution in right field.

So is Hicks looking forward to the potential challenge of covering a ton of ground on a daily basis?

"If I'm in the big leagues, I'm not going to worry about who is in left and who is in right," he said. "I'm going to be trying to track balls down the best I can. For me, I love it. I love being able to have that much ground and know that I can go after it the best that I can."

Hicks is very aware that the Twins' list of center fielders includes guys named Kirby Puckett and Torii Hunter. Both made their fair share of spectacular plays on defense.

Span, who also covered plenty of ground, made it part of his time with the Twins to also take Hicks under his wing whenever possible.

"(Span) has been taking care of me, showing me the ropes," Hicks said. "Showing me what to and what not to do. Whenever I need to call him I can do so. Ever since he got traded away to the Nationals, I still keep in touch with him. It's sort of a passing of the torch but with me I'm just happy to be in that line of great outfielders. They really don't get any better." 

Judd Zulgad is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays and "Saturday Morning SportsTalk" from 10 a.m. to noon on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Judd | @1500ESPNJudd | Mackey & Judd
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