Coming into the 2013 season, Aaron Hicks looked like he might have finally put it all together. The former first-round draft pick was coming off a highly productive season in Double-A, where he hit .285/.382/.459 with 13 homers and 32 stolen bases. Then came Spring Training, where Hicks looked like a man amongst boys, hitting an absurd .370/.407/.644 with four dingers and three steals while playing excellent defense in center field. The five-tool player that the Twins had spent so long cultivating was finally bearing fruit. Minnesota handed Hicks the starting job in center field over Darin Mastroianni and set him free to light the world on fire.
To say that April was rough for Hicks would be a severe understatement. Appearing completely lost every time he stepped up to the plate, he scuffled to an atrocious .113/.229/.127 line, striking out in 31.7 percent of his plate appearances and collecting just one extra-base hit, a double. It didn’t get much better from there; by the time the Twins sent Hicks down to Triple-A in early August, he was still hitting a paltry .192/.259/.338 with 24 walks and 84 strikeouts in 313 plate appearances. Even worse, once Hicks got to Triple-A, a level he had previously skipped, he didn’t fare much better. In 22 games with Rochester following his demotion, he could only summon up a .222/.317/.333 line, and was still striking out in over a quarter of his plate appearances.
The strikeout rate wasn’t a huge surprise, seeing as Hicks struck out in more than twenty percent of his plate appearances at both High-A and Double-A. What was especially troubling was that he completely lost the ability to reach base. After posting a 14.7-percent walk rate in 500 minor-league games, Hicks walked in just 7.7 percent of his major-league plate appearances. Even more bizarre is that 11 of his 24 walks in the majors last year were in that awful April; from May through August, Hicks’ walk rate fell all the way down to 4.3 percent.
Obviously, there are plenty of very good reasons to doubt Hicks’ ability to produce in 2014, or ever, for that matter. Keep in mind that he’s now 24 years old and is entering his seventh season of professional baseball.
There are still reasons to hold out some hope, however. First off, it’s not like his natural ability and athleticism have gone anywhere. This is still the same potential five-tool prospect scouts saw tearing up Double-A in 2012. Furthermore, Hicks has gotten off to slow starts almost every time he has moved up a level throughout his career, and it’s entirely possible that the bright lights of the majors got in his head and prevented him from making the necessary adjustments as he had throughout the minors. Personally, I think the Twins waited far too long to send Hicks back down last year; making a rookie look up at the Jumbotron and see a batting average under the Mendoza line for four months straight is borderline cruel.
As I said before, Hicks is 24 years old, which means he’s had plenty of development time, but also means that he still has a chance to turn it around and be a post-hype sleeper. Heck, Alex Gordon was pretty darn bad until he was 27. The biggest red flag I have with Hicks is that I don’t believe his power is ever going to really materialize. I’d love for Hicks to prove me wrong, but his highest career isolated power at any level was in that excellent Double-A season, when he recorded a .173 ISO. That’s nothing to scoff at, of course, but not something that jumps off the page. To take it a step further, Hicks has 34 career minor-league home runs, 13 of which came in 2012. In his other 1,629 minor-league plate appearances, he hit just 21 homers, or one every 77.6 plate appearances. Scouts always talked about his potential to hit 20+ homers a year in the majors; I think at this point the Twins would be pretty pumped if he hit 20 homers once in his career.
Hicks will probably start the year in Triple-A and stay there until he either starts heating up or until Alex Presley reminds everyone that he’s not very good. In the long term, there’s still a chance that he’ll turn into the player the Twins so badly want him to be, but I’d say the odds are looking pretty slim. Thinking forward a couple years, Byron Buxton will likely be manning center field and Oswaldo Arcia will be playing one of the corners. With Joe Mauer entrenched at first base, Miguel Sano will likely be occupying the other corner outfield spot, if he can’t stick at third base. That doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for Hicks, and his bat has a lot of advancing to do if it’s going to play in a corner outfield spot to begin with. Hicks still has the ceiling to be a first-division regular, but it’s looking far more likely that he’ll reach his floor of being a quadruple-A bust.
Scott Strandberg started writing for Rotographs in 2013. He works in small business consultation, and he also writes A&E columns for The Norman Transcript newspaper. Scott lives in Seattle, WA.