Monday, January 7, 2013

Benchmarks for 2013: Center field

The Twins 2013 spring training camp, as in 2008, will feature a three-way competition for the center field job.

One significant difference between the two: This time there is a clear "end game," a candidate who figures to wind up with the job. The question is more when it happens than who.

It strikes me that there are strong parallels between the three candidates this year and those of 2008:

Darin Mastroianni is Jason Pridie, or at least a right-handed version of same. Pridie fell rather quickly out of contention for the job in 2008; he was seen as more suitable for a fourth outfielder role than as a regular. So far, Pridie hasn't accomplished that either.

Joe Benson got considerable playing time in
September 2011 and was rated the second
best prospect in the Minnesota farm system
by Baseball America that winter. 
Mastroianni is very likely to be on the 2013 major league roster. There's a role for him as a bench player. But his chance of opening the season as the regular in center relies more on the unreadiness for the other two candidates than on his own skills.

Joe Benson is Carlos Gomez -- right-handed hitters who struggle to translate their obvious athletic gifts to usable baseball skills. Gomez won the spring training competition in 2008 but ultimately lost the job to Denard Span.

Gomez had the advantage of being the best shot at immediate payoff in the Johan Santana trade; Benson is in danger of falling out of relevance after a dismal 2012 in which he hit .179 in Triple A, .184 in Double A and had wrist surgery.

Aaron Hicks parallels Span: First-round draft picks with notable plate discipline. Hicks is a switch-hitter but had, at least until last season, struggled as a left-handed hitter. Hicks as a better throwing arm than Span.

Hicks has this advantage over the other two: He projects as a legitimate top-of-the-order hitter. Mastroianni is unlikely to hit well enough to be an everyday outfielder; Benson's on-base percentage is unlikely to ever be above average. I'll delve into this in more detail in a later benchmark post, but the Twins really need somebody in an up-the-middle position to hit in one of the two two lineup slots.

But Hicks hasn't played a game above Double A, and his rise through the farm system has been a painstaking one.

The endgame

Hicks is the guy the Twins want to wind up with the job -- not just playing center field, but hitting leadoff. The question facing Ron Gardenhire and Co. this spring is: How soon can he handle it?

Success in this area is, at the least, having Hicks secure in the centerfield/leadoff job by September.

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