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Twins hope top prospect Hicks is next star in CF

Twins hope top prospect Hicks is next star in CF

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

``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.''


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May the odds be ever in your favor: Vegas sets over/unders for 2018 MLB season

May the odds be ever in your favor: Vegas sets over/unders for 2018 MLB season

The start of spring training is a glimmer of hope during the cold of winter. It means warm weather, cold beers and hot dogs at the ballpark are coming your way.

It's our first chance to get a taste of how our favorite team is shaping up for the 2018 season, and for those who are not quite into just the game itself, betting odds.

CG Technology, a Las Vegas sportsbook operator, has set the 2018 odds for each MLB team.

Specifically, how are things looking for the local teams?


Washington Nationals: 91 1/2 wins

The 2018 season is looked at by many as the last World Series run for some time for the Nationals and their core group of players. Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy and Gio Gonzalez will become free agents after the 2018 season in addition to general manager and President of Baseball Operations, Mike Rizzo.

In 2017, the team won 97 games and went on to win the NL East, but couldn't make it past the first-round of the National League Division Series. In 2018, Vegas is giving the Nats 7/2 odds of taking the National League title. They are just behind the Chicago Cubs, who knocked them out of contention last season, at 4/1 odds.

As far as winning the World Series, Vegas is giving the guys an 8/1 chance of their first title, tied with the Cubs.

Baltimore Orioles: 77 1/2 wins

The O's finished the 2017 season with 75 wins, which could be considered somewhat of an accomplishment considering their pitching resources.

The same problem will occur in 2018 as the organization hasn't signed any new starting pitchers. Vegas is giving them 50/1 odds of taking the American League title and 100/1 odds of winning the World Series.

The lack of depth in their rotation will come back to bite them as division rival New York Yankees have 5/1 odds of winning the World Series and the Red Sox have 10/1 odds.

A below average season should be expected.

A few other standouts, good and bad, include the Miami Marlins at 500/1 odds of winning the World Series, the Kansas City Royals at 200/1 and current champions, the Houston Astros, at 6/1 odds.


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Former Nationals pitcher Esteban Loaiza arrested with more than 40 pounds of suspected cocaine


Former Nationals pitcher Esteban Loaiza arrested with more than 40 pounds of suspected cocaine

SAN DIEGO — Former All-Star pitcher Esteban Loaiza has been arrested on suspicion of trafficking drugs after packages containing a white powder believed to be cocaine were found at a home he rented in Southern California, officials said Monday.

The 46-year-old former Major League Baseball player was booked Friday on charges involving the possession, transport and sale of 20 kilograms (44 pounds) of suspected cocaine worth an estimated $500,000, according to the San Diego Sheriff's Department.

Loaiza played for numerous teams between 1995 and 2008, starting with the Pittsburgh Pirates and concluding with his second stint with the Chicago White Sox. He had a 21-9 record with the Chicago White Sox in 2003 and started in the All-Star Game that year.


He also played one season for the Washington Nationals in 2005 — the team's inaugural season in D.C. after the franchise changed from the Montreal Expos. During his one season in Washington, Loaiza finished with a 12-10 record adn a 3.77 ERA over 34 games played that year.

It was not immediately known if Loaiza had hired a lawyer and the former player could not be reached to comment. He was being held Monday for lack of $200,000 bail pending a court appearance on Wednesday.

Loaiza's agent, John Boggs, told the San Francisco Chronicle that he had no information about the arrest and that he has not spoken to Loaiza recently. He said that Loaiza had called his office early last week but Boggs was unavailable at the time.

"I am shocked and saddened by the news and had no indication he would ever be in this type of situation," Boggs said in a text to the newspaper. "I don't know how he would get himself involved in this, so it's difficult to even comment on it."

Officers stopped Loaiza for a minor traffic infraction Friday after he left the home he started renting recently in the Pacific coast community of Imperial Beach, along the U.S.-Mexico border. Authorities had the vehicle under surveillance on suspicion it was used for smuggling drugs.

When they searched the vehicle, they found a sophisticated compartment used to conceal contraband, authorities said. That led them to obtain a search warrant for Loaiza's rental home, where they found the packages of drugs, according to investigators.

The packages containing a white powder are still being tested but are believed to be cocaine, said San Diego Sheriff's Lt. Jason Vickery.

Loaiza was born in Tijuana, Mexico and was married for two years to the late Mexican-American singer Jenni Rivera. She filed for divorce shortly before she died in a plane crash in 2012.

The 43-year-old Rivera was known as the "Diva de la Banda" and died as her career was peaking. She was perhaps the most successful female singer in grupero, a male-dominated Mexico regional style, sold more than 15 million records, and moved into acting and reality television.

Loaiza sued the aircraft's owners in 2014 for wrongful death but her relatives accused him of trying to profit from her death. He denied the accusations and later retracted his lawsuit.

NBC Sports Washington contributed to this report.