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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 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.''

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Follow Dave Campbell on Twitter:http://www.twitter.com/DaveCampbellAP

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Patrick Corbin once again carves through San Francisco

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USA TODAY SPORTS

Patrick Corbin once again carves through San Francisco

WASHINGTON -- The Washington Nationals beat the San Francisco Giants, 4-1, Thursday afternoon to move to 9-8. Here are five observations from the game...

1. If there is a reason to sign a pitcher for $140 million, spend a little more than everyone else on him and give an extra year in the contract, it showed up Thursday afternoon.

Patrick Corbin dominated for 7 ⅔ innings in a win against the San Francisco Giants. He did what Stephen Strasburg could not in the series opener: lockdown the National League’s worst offense.

Sean Doolittle worked the ninth. He allowed his first earned run of the season.

The win pushed the Nationals back over. 500 for the first time since April 13. Being one game over .500 ties a season-high. So, there’s that.

The rest of the week offers a path to being well above .500 by the time the Nationals come back to the District on Friday, April 26 to open a three-game series with the upstart San Diego Padres. The Nationals head to Miami for three games this weekend before moving onto Colorado. Combined records for those teams coming into Thursday? 10-27.

“I think now is that time [to get rolling],” Doolittle said. “I think it kind of started with this series. We had a chance to win the series against Pittsburgh. We kind of let it get away, but bouncing back, winning this series, we go on the road and face a couple teams that -- they're not playing their best right now. This is a chance maybe we can strike, win a couple series, come back home...we come back home, we got the Padres and the Cardinals, who are playing really well. This road trip's really important for us.”

2. The Giants continued to be a comfortable matchup for Corbin. They produced just a .439 OPS against him in six games last season. San Francisco struck out 46 times and had just 32 total bases in those six games.

Its offense is worse this year, helping lead to Thursday’s carving of them with back-foot sliders and 90-mph fastballs which appeared to be moving faster. Corbin allowed just two hits, a run, and struck out nine.

“I've faced [Brandon] Belt, I’ve faced [Brandon] Crawford a lot.” Corbin said. “They can do damage on lefties if you stay middle. So you can't take those at-bats off, you’ve got to still go out there and make quality pitches and we were just able to kind of do that throughout the course of the game. Just had a good gameplan, good flow and was able to work out.”

A sinker has also entered Corbin’s pitch mix more frequently.

“We all know at any point and any time, he can throw that slider,” catcher Yan Gomes said. “But it’s one of those things where maybe you guys are starting to notice it more, because his sinker is becoming a true left-handed sinker. He’s getting some good bite on it, good sink on it. And he’s getting some not-so-good swings on it. So we’re just going to keep going to that, knowing he can go to the slider at any time.”

Corbin’s shutdown of San Francisco followed his snuffing out of the Pittsburgh offense April 12. The Pirates scored one run in seven innings, conjured just four hits and struck out 11 times. His last two outings combined: 14 ⅔ innings, six hits, two earned runs, two walks, 20 strikeouts.

The consecutive outings make Corbin the team’s best starting pitcher to this point. His ERA is down to 2.36.

3. Wilmer Difo offense? For a day.

Difo homered, singled and walked, sending his average up to .229.

A sidenote to keep track of is Carter Kieboom in Triple-A Fresno. Kieboom is tearing through the Pacific Coast League. He’s hitting .422 with a 1.247 OPS. More intriguing is Kieboom has played 70 of his 100 innings this season at shortstop. The Nationals initially touted him as splitting time in a more even fashion between shortstop and second base in order to learn the right side of the bag.

He also has not committed an error. It’s hard to take a firm conclusion from that fact because it does not note his range or scoring decisions or simply plays that were not converted. But, it’s better than the alternative.

4. Washington came into the game 18th in MLB in strikeouts. Middle of the pack. Not bad.

Odd about their series with the Giants was the number of times they struck out looking. The Nationals struck out 30 times in the series. Of those, 15 strikeouts were looking.

Recall Nationals manager Davey Martinez was ejected Tuesday because of his irritation with Tony Randazzo’s strike zone. Thursday, numerous Giants and Nationals players were upset by the strike zone of Ryan Additon. San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy and left fielder Brandon Belt were both ejected for yelling at Additon.

Most of the called third strikes against Washington on Thursday appeared correct based on Gameday’s charting of location.

5. The schedule prompted another lineup pivot Thursday. Victor Robles was vaulted to the top of the order. Ryan Zimmerman was back at first base and hitting fourth. Michael A. Taylor took Robles’ place in the ninth spot.

The changes gave Adam Eaton his first day off of the season. Robles moved to right field to take his position.

The Nationals are in the midst of 25 games in 26 days following multiple days off to start the season. Such a run couples with Martinez being cognizant of protecting Howie Kendrick from playing too much -- despite his hot start (1.677 OPS in 20 at-bats) and being ranked fourth in exit velocity. He pinch-hit in the eighth inning.

“He's just having good at-bats,” Martinez said. “When he hits the ball, he's hitting the ball really hard. He's just squaring balls up. He's in a good place. It was tough, last night when I was thinking about the lineup, not to have him in there cause he's doing so well. But then again, he just came off a hamstring injury and I got to make sure he's available not just for today but for the whole season. We got to keep him fresh.”

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Why Mike Rizzo is optimistic he'll get a deal done with Anthony Rendon

Why Mike Rizzo is optimistic he'll get a deal done with Anthony Rendon

Nationals manager Mike Rizzo is hopeful that Anthony Rendon will be staying in Washington and that a deal can be done before Rendon becomes a free agent following the 2019 season.

Rizzo joined The Junkies Wednesday morning, one day after NBC Sports Washington's Todd Dybas confirmed reports that the team met with Rendon on Tuesday to talk about his future in Washington. Rendon told Dybas in March that extension talks had come to a halt. 

Rizzo, when speaking on The Junkies, said he was hopeful they would and said the two had had a nice chat about their long history.

We go way back together and we were kind of reminiscing a little bit about where we've been and the next step in our relationship," he said. 

Rizzo has known Rendon since his high school days in Texas, and followed him closely at Rice University before drafting him with the sixth overall pick in the 2011 Major League Baseball draft. 

"We recognize what we have in Anthony, he recognizes what we've meant to him," he said. "Hopefully we can come to some sort of agreement." 

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