Aaron Hicks’ trade to the New York Yankees on Wednesday brings to a close one of the more frustrating eras for a young Twins player in some time. Frustrating for those of us who closely follow Twins prospects, frustrating for the Twins’ front office and, I’m certain, frustrating for the player, himself.
The methods that Major League Baseball employ to bring new talent into professional baseball in the United States amount to the biggest crapshoot in professional sports. A 40-round amateur draft for domestic players, combined with a process for signing international talent at the age of 16, feeds at least a half-dozen tiers of development leagues. The result is a meat-grinder of a system that chews up and spits out young players by the hundreds every year, with only the strongest, most durable (and luckiest) few of the group even getting a taste of big league life, much less having a significant MLB career.
International players that garner multi-million dollar deals at the age of 16, like Miguel Sano, and top-of-the-first-round draft choices, like Byron Buxton, are better bets, of course, but the road is also littered with players in those categories that, whether due to injury or any number of other reasons, never lived their Major League dreams.
A then-18 year old Aaron Hicks was the Twins’ first round draft choice in 2008, the 14th pick of the draft, and immediately was penciled in as the next-generation fixture in the middle of the Twins’ outfield of the future.
It took 4 1/2 years for Hicks to get to the big leagues which, at the time, seemed like forever for a first round draft pick. Yet, when he did debut, after winning the starting centerfield job out of spring training in 2013, it felt to many like he was rushed. As things turned out, he almost certainly could have used more development time, rather than skipping directly from AA in 2012 to The Show to open 2013.
Hicks got off to a very good start with the Gulf Coast League Twins after signing in 2008, hitting .318 with a .900 OPS, in just over 200 plate appearances. From there, though, the path became more challenging.
He was targeted to start 2009 with Elizabethton, but by mid-June of that year, the Beloit Snappers needed outfield help and Hicks was sent there, instead. He struggled a bit at the plate, requiring him to repeat that level in 2010. His numbers improved in 2010 and, given that he was still just 20 years old, his prospect status jumped, as well.
Hicks’ 2011 at advanced-A Fort Myers was nothing to write home about, again costing him some prospect-status points. The Twins sent him to the Arizona Fall League that year for some more work and he excelled in Arizona, hitting .294 and racking up a huge .959 OPS, albeit in just 30 games. That was enough to get fans excited about Hicks’ potential again, heading in to the following spring.
He didn’t disappoint at AA New Britain, having the quintessential “break out year” with the Rock Cats, hitting .286 with 13 home runs.
That performance emboldened Twins General Manager Terry Ryan, who saw Hicks as being so Major League ready that he traded away both of the Twins’ incumbent centerfielders, Denard Span and Ben Revere, during the offseason leading up to 2013. Again, the enthusiasm turned out to be a bit premature, as Hicks struggled not only with the Twins, for whom he hit below the Mendoza-line level, but also at AAA Rochester, where he continued to struggle at the plate.
Hicks lasted less than a month into the 2014 season before literally “hitting a wall.” He suffered a concussion after slamming into the centerfield wall at Target Field in a game against the Dodgers. He ended up spending time at AA, where he once again excelled in 43 games, and at AAA Rochester, where he certainly held his own. After getting a September call-up, he totaled 69 games with the Twins during the season, hitting just .215 in his time with the big club.
Justified or not, Hicks earned a reputation within the Twins organization as having a less-than-professional approach to his game. Reports came out that at times he didn’t even know who the opponent’s starting pitcher was. Struggling from the left side of the plate, he announced he would give up on switch-hitting (a decision he later reversed, after a chat with Rod Carew).
The Twins did not bring Hicks north with them to open the 2015 season, opting instead to start him at AAA Rochester. To his credit, Hicks immediately set about earning another chance with the Twins. He hit .342 with the Red Wings and put up a .948 OPS.
With the Twins, Hicks was respectable at the plate for the first time in his big league career, batting .256 and hitting 11 home runs in 97 appearances. In addition, his defense in centerfield was a critical contribution to the Twins’ surprising (to many) 83-win season, despite struggling with a hamstring issue.
That’s the history with the Twins that Aaron Hicks carried into this postseason. Given all of that, it certainly could not have come as a surprise to anyone that General Manager Terry Ryan was willing to listen when the Yankees’ Brian Cashman approached him about a possible deal involving Hicks.
Reports have surfaced that there was interest in Hicks previously on the part of other teams, but the Twins were unwilling to let him go. That’s not surprising, since any overture before the 2015 season would have almost certainly been a low-ball offer.
We’ve also read that Cashman got a lukewarm response from Ryan to his first suggestion of a trade involving Hicks for Yanks catcher John Ryan Murphy, but Ryan became much more interested in the idea after the Twins learned they had won the right to negotiate with Korean slugger Byung Ho Park.
Adding Park to the mix at first base and designated hitter meant the idea of Miguel Sano getting regular time in the Twins outfield in 2016 went from just a casual option to a much more real possibility. Inserting Sano into the outfield mix with Hicks, Eddie Rosario and, sooner rather than later, Byron Buxton and Max Kepler, left Ryan with an abundance of outfielders.
It may be risky to assume (1) that Sano can play a passable outfield and (2) that Buxton and/or Kepler will be successful big league hitters in 2016. We also can’t rule out the possibility that third baseman Trevor Plouffe could yet be dealt by the Twins, opening up that position for Sano and taking him out of the outfield mix again.
On the flip side, however, given Hicks’ roller-coaster performance record, Ryan had to figure that now might be the best time to maximize Hicks’ trade value. The Twins needed a catcher capable of at least challenging Kurt Suzuki for the starting job behind the plate immediately. The Yankees had such a catcher available in Murphy and they were willing to part with him in return for Hicks, so Ryan pulled the trigger.
I’d like to say I wish Aaron Hicks the best of luck and I do – to a point.
If he had been traded to any team I either have some kind of affection for or at least have no feelings toward whatsoever, my wish for good fortune would be unconditional. He seems like a good guy and I truly appreciate the challenges he overcame to eventually be a significant contributor to the Twins at the Major League level.
But he’s going to the Yankees.
So the best I can do is wish Hicks all the personal good luck in the world in the future, while stopping short of being able to wish him good fortune in conjunction with his new team. I just can’t wish the Yankees anything close to good luck.
As for Murphy, I don’t know much about him, but all reports indicate that he has grown from a “bat first” catcher into a guy who is at least a legitimate MLB talent behind the plate. If he can perform in that manner and hit the way he has done historically, he’ll amount to a significant upgrade for the Twins at the position.
I believe that the Twins have multiple legitimate big league catching prospects in their organization. I believe that Stuart Turner, Mitch Garver and Brian Navarreto, to name just three, will someday catch at the MLB level, either with the Twins or elsewhere. They have different strengths and weaknesses and whether they become regulars or backups will depend on how they improve on those weaknesses, but they’ll get their shots.
It takes time, however, for most to develop into a regular big league catcher and it will be more than a couple of years before any of those prospects is ready to be “the guy” behind the plate for what, by then, should be a MLB contender.
For now, at least, Murphy seems like a very good cost-controlled addition to the roster and the price paid was reasonable.