Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Contemplating the center field situation

Aaron Hicks' remarkable over-the-head
grab off former Twin Chris Parmelee
on July 6.
Center field has been another kaleidoscope position for the Twins this season. Aaron Hicks has started 38 games. Jordan Schafer (released) started 20, Shane Robinson 14, Byron Buxton 11 before his injury. Eddie Rosario and Danny Santana drew a sliver of starts as well (three apiece).

When Buxton arrived about a month ago, I figured Hicks had gotten his last shot at the job. But three things happened: One, Buxton did not immediately shine. Two, Buxton sprained his thumb. Three, Hicks has been a sharply better player since stepping back into the lineup.

It's not just a small sample size, but a tiny one: 10 games, July 3 through July 12. Ten games in which Hicks has put up a slash line of .323/.436/.645. And it's not that he's been abnormally lucky: his batting average on balls in play is a normal .296 in that stretch. We know he's not that good -- nobody is -- but I'll guarantee he hasn't had a comparable 10-game stretch in his career.

His two homers this month came right-handed, no real surprise, but he's also crushed a pair of doubles left-handed that could have gone out of some more friendly yards than Target Field. He's drawn seven walks and fanned only three times in those 10 games.

Power and a batting eye. He sure hasn't demonstrated those skills in the majors before. He just looks like a different hitter, one who has a clue from at-bat to at-bat.

Hicks' slash line for the season, .266/.333/.387, is not eye-popping, but it's close to league average, and that's sufficient for a good-glove center fielder. He's pushed his way out of the very bottom of the lineup, hitting seventh most games, and right now there's a good case for him to move ahead of Rosario as well.

It may be another month before Buxton is a factor again, and Hicks may well revert to the weak hitter he's been until July. (He was hitting .247/.293/.301 coming into the month.) But if Hicks settles into a .270/.340/.400 groove (slightly better than his slash line to date), the Twins may well opt to give Buxton some Triple A time when his thumb is healed.

This doesn't change the long-term status of the two. Buxton is still the center fielder of the future. Hicks, however, now has his best claim ever as the center fielder of the present -- and in a pennant chase, that matters.

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