MINNEAPOLIS (AP) - Aaron Hicks' march through Minnesota's minor league system has been conservative and deliberate, typical for a Twins prospect.
Since he was picked in the first round in 2008, Hicks has had some tough seasons and some strong ones, highlighted by his breakthrough last year with Double-A New Britain.
The biggest development of his career, however, actually came this winter. That's when the Twins traded a pair of center fielders for young pitchers, sending Denard Span to Washington and Ben Revere to Philadelphia.
Span, who turns 29 before this season, was Minnesota's first-round draft pick in 2002. He has been the regular center fielder since 2008. Revere, who will be 25 this year, roamed the middle whenever Span was hurt. Otherwise, Revere was in right field.
"I was very surprised. Denard's been patrolling the outfield for a while," Hicks said last weekend at the team's annual fan festival. "And it's been tough seeing a guy who's kind of like my mentor just leave before I get up there. It's kind of a shock, but it's just how it is. It's just how this game is. Different guys come up. Different guys go down. Guys get traded all the time."
Darin Mastroianni also will be in the mix in spring training, but the base-stealing master is probably better suited to be the primary backup at all three spots. Joe Benson, once a rising star in the system, regressed badly last season while hitting a combined .202 and dealing with wrist and knee injuries and playing at four different levels. He will get a look, too.
But manager Ron Gardenhire told general manager Terry Ryan he wants the 23-year-old Hicks to get the job.
"I'll sit down with him," Gardenhire said. "I think one thing I know how to do is kind of make these guys relax a little and try to keep them as light as we possibly can. There's a pressure out there that I can't control, and that's him trying to make this baseball team. I can control how he handles himself, and I can try to keep him as relaxed as I possibly can with the rest of our staff and try not to put too much pressure on him. He knows what's at stake. Now it's going to be how he handles it."
Hicks, the 14th overall selection from Woodrow Wilson High School in Long Beach, Calif., struggled in 2011 at Class A Fort Myers. His on-base-plus-slugging percentage was .722. Last year for New Britain, Hicks raised that number to .844. He batted .286 with 13 homers, 11 triples, 61 RBIs and 32 steals in 472 at-bats in the Eastern League. The Twins considered calling him up in September but decided against it.
"I just knew what I was doing up there at the plate," Hicks said. "I felt more mature. I feel like every time I got up there I had a game plan. A few years before that I had nothing. I was just going up there trying to hack away."
Ryan compared Hicks' arm strength to former Twins outfielder Michael Cuddyer. The GM described the instincts he has in taking effective angles and making the right jumps for balls in the power alleys. Ryan praised his discipline at the plate, too. Hicks has a .379 career on-base percentage in the minors.
"Aaron Hicks is very capable. It's just a matter of whether or not he's ready," Ryan said. "He hasn't had an at-bat at Triple-A, but that isn't going to sidetrack our opinion that he might be able to jump over Triple-A. He's got all the attributes of being a pure center fielder. He's a switch hitter. He has power."
The 6-foot-2, 185-pound Hicks was recently ranked as one of six Twins prospects in the top 100 in all of baseball by MLB.com.
"In my opinion, he's ready for the challenge," Span said in a phone interview on Thursday. "Why not throw him in the fire and see what he can do? I think he's mature enough to handle that now."
As Torii Hunter did for him, Span served as a mentor of sorts for Hicks. The two met in spring training a few years ago.
"The last couple years he'd send me texts whenever he was struggling or going through things," Span said. "Last year he would call me when he was feeling good. You could just hear the excitement in how well he was doing compared to the year before when he struggled a little bit in the Florida State League. I would always try to give him positive advice and just try to get his mind off baseball a little bit at times. Just try to tell him whatever he needed to hear to have confidence."
Hicks has made the most strides since he was drafted in hitting left-handed, but becoming a consistent producer at the plate probably will be his biggest challenge. The defense is already there.
"I like having that guy drive that ball to left-center field, thinking he has a hit and the next thing you know now I'm there and I'm catching it," Hicks said at Target Field, looking out on the spacious but currently snow-covered outfield. "I like to show my speed off and definitely make guys mad."
Follow Dave Campbell on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/DaveCampbellAP