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Aaron Hicks: Finally Reaching His Potential?

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Ray Guilfoyle takes a look at Twins outfield Aaron Hicks and asks whether he has finally reached his potential or was 2012 a fluke season for the once promising prospect.

Brace Hemmelgarn-US PRESSWIRE

Aaron Hicks was drafted by the Minnesota Twins with the 14th overall pick in the first round of the 2008 draft and was a top 50 prospect according to Baseball America for three straight seasons, ranking as high as #19 in their Top 100 rankings in 2010. He continued to receive high praise due to his potential and the five tool skills he possessed, and not due to his performance on the field or at the plate.

That is until the 2012 season.

Hicks did nothing to change his prospect ranking in rookie ball in 2008 hitting .318-.409-.491 with 4 HRs, 10 doubles, 4 triples, 32 runs scored, 27 RBI and 12 stolen bases in 14 attempts. Even more impressive was his eye at the plate, as he owned a 32-28 strikeout to walk ratio in 173 at bats.

He followed that up with a disappointing season in his first look at Low A pitching in 2009, hitting .251-.353-.382 with just 4 HRs, 43 runs, 29 RBI and just 10 stolen bases in 18 attempts. On the positive side, he maintained the solid plate discipline, with a 55-40 strikeout to walk ratio in 251 at bats.

Here is what John Manual from Baseball America wrote about him, after his disappointing 2009 season, back in January 2010:

Hicks combines five-tool athleticism with a surprisingly advanced approach at the plate. He has dynamic tools, starting with an arm that some scouts rate as an 80 on the 20-80 scale. His speed rates at least above-average if not better, and he has the tools to be a premium defender in center field. His hitting tools are in some ways similar to those of top Phillies prospect Domonic Brown, though Hicks has more explosiveness in his hands and may have more raw power.

I find it interesting that Manual compared Hicks to Phillies outfield prospect Dominic Brown, as both have had their share of struggles at the minor and major league levels. But the comparison fits as both are five tool outfielders with solid plate discipline. Unfortunately for Hicks, his struggles have been at the minor league level, and until 2012, he had yet to turn the raw power into game power. Except for his 2008 season, where he slugged .491 in rookie ball at the age of 18, Hicks' has yet to slug higher than .428 in Low A or High A.

Here are his career minor league stats, courtesy of Baseball Reference:

2008 18 Rk 173 32 55 10 4 4 27 12 2 28 32 .318 .409 .491 .900 85
2009 19 A 251 43 63 15 3 4 29 10 8 40 55 .251 .353 .382 .735 96
2010 20 A 423 86 118 27 6 8 49 21 11 88 112 .279 .401 .428 .829 181
2011 21 A+ 443 79 107 31 5 5 38 17 9 78 110 .242 .354 .368 .722 163
2012 22 AA 472 100 135 21 11 13 61 32 11 79 116 .286 .384 .460 .844 217
5 Seasons 1762 340 478 104 29 34 204 92 41 313 425 .271 .379 .421 .800 742
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 10/27/2012.

Hicks second shot at Low A pitching was mildly better, as he hit .279-.401-.428 with 8 HRs, 86 runs scored, 49 RBI and 21 stolen bases in 32 attempts. Like his previous two seasons, Hicks continued to show excellent plate discipline, as his 112-88 strikeout to walk ratio indicates. I know I am sounding like a broken record here, but Hicks again failed to hit for power for the second season in a row, yet he did not sell out his eye at the plate to improve the power production.

HIs 2011 season was his worst yet, as he hit just .242-.354-.368 with 5 HRs, 79 runs, 38 RBI and 17 stolen bases in 26 attempts. Again, his plate discipline was excellent, and his prospect status took a big hit as a result, as he dropped out of many Top 100 Prospect Rankings heading into 2012.

Here is what John had to say about him in his Minnesota Twins Top 20 Prospects heading into the 2012 season:

7) Aaron Hicks, OF, Grade B-: Tough to get a handle on this one. The tools are all here, patient, great glove, but the power is just not developing. He gets slack with the grade for one more year.

John's quick take above covers it all, as although Hicks' power has disappointed many scouts and prospect experts, he still has plenty of tools that could make him a solid major leaguer. John lowered his grade on Hicks from B+ ("borderline B") in 2011 to a B- in his 2012 rankings.

So, how did he perform in 2012? He had his best season as a minor leaguer, hitting .286-.384-.460 with 13 HRs, 100 runs scored, 61 RBI and 32 stolen bases in 43 attempts, putting up his best season as a minor leaguer, all while facing tougher pitching in AA. His power ticked up a bit, as his home run total increased from 5 in 2011 to 13, and his triples more than doubled from 5 in 2011 to 11 in 2012. He also showed more speed on the basepaths, stealing 32 bases, topping his career best of 21 steals handily.

Here is a breakdown of his extra base hits over his 5 year minor league career:

2008 (Rookie): 18 XBH in 173 at bats

2009 ( Low A): 22 XBH in 251 at bats

2010 (Low A): 41 XBH in 423 at bats

2011 (High A): 41 XBH in 443 at bats

2012 (AA): 45 XBH in 472 at bats

His extra base hit totals have increased with his at bat totals, all the while maintaining an excellent strikeout to walk rate, and his OBP has never been lower than .353, so he knows how to get on base. The power tool has never developed, and some feel he is TOO selective at the plate, resulting in low power numbers. But he showed glimpses of his power potential in 2012, so now we are left to wonder if Hicks has finally put everything together or if his bump in power was just an aberration.

Baseball America wrote this about him in their Eastern League Top 20 Prospects early this month:

An uptick in production as a lefthanded hitter (.287/.394/.434), the result of shortening his stroke, buttressed the switch-hitting Hicks' overall batting line. He still gets to his average raw power more easily from his natural right side.

Hicks hit for more power from the right side in 2012, slugging .522 as a righty vs left handed pitching in 138 at bats, while slugging .434 as a lefty vs right handed pitching in 334 at bats. Some have suggested that he should focus on hitting right handed, and scrap hitting left handed, but that could reduce him to a 4th outfielder type in the big leagues.

The Twins front office and scouting department have to be excited after seeing Hicks hit well in 2012, so he will have his work cut out for him in 2013. I imagine he will start the season at AAA Rochester, and if he can build on his mini-breakout in 2013, he could force the Twins to finally deal center fielder Denard Span or left fielder Josh Willingham, or both, for some pitching help. Heck, the Twins have already made it know that they are in the market for three starting pitchers, so Willingham and Span may already be involved in trade talks. A deal involving Josh Willingham would probably bring back more in a deal than Span would, especially after his career year at the age of 33 in 2012.

Has Aaron Hicks finally reached the potential many saw in his when he was drafted back in 2008? Or was the power bump in 2012 just an aberration?

From a fantasy slant, if Hicks power increase in 2012 is real, he could become a valuable guy to stash in dynasty and keeper leagues, as he gets on base enough to steal 25-30 bags per season, which is valuable enough for fantasy owners.