FORT MYERS, Fla. -- It's no secret the Twins have preferred to take it slow with Aaron Hicks, who is ranked the club's No.6 prospect by MLB.com, since he was selected out of high school in the first round of the 2008 First-Year Player Draft.
The center fielder has played five seasons in the Minor Leagues and hasn't played above Double-A, but entering Spring Training, the Twins insisted that he had a legitimate chance to win the center-field job.
So far, Hicks has not disappointed, as he's been one of the hottest hitters in Spring Training, as evidenced by his recent tear this week.
Hicks hit three homers against the Phillies on Thursday, one Wednesday vs. Team Puerto Rico and another Monday against the Cardinals.
He's emerged as the leader in the competition for the center-field job ahead of Darin Mastroianni and Joe Benson, and general manager Terry Ryan said the club will not hesitate to name him the starting center fielder if he's the best in the three-man race at the end of Spring Training.
Ryan also made it clear that starting Hicks' service time clock will not play in a role in their decision, as the club could also save money in the long-term by deciding to hold Hicks back at Triple-A to start the season to keep him from reaching Super Two status in arbitration.
"Not here," Ryan said. "I've said it's always been wide-open at that position, and that hasn't changed."
Hicks had a breakout season last year, hitting .286/.384/.460 with 13 homers, 21 doubles, 11 triples and 32 stolen bases in 129 games with Double-A New Britain.
Hicks, who has a career .379 on-base percentage in the Minors, has long been known for his pitch selection and pitch recognition, and manager Ron Gardenhire likes the way Hicks has looked as the club's leadoff hitter throughout the Grapefruit League season.
"He's doing great," Gardenhire said. "I just like him up there. He's a prototype -- a switch-hitter not afraid to take pitches, not afraid to take walks. Whether he can handle the leadoff role, I haven't decided that. First he's got to make this baseball team, and he's working his way right towards it."
So while Hicks has never been afraid to draw a walk, it's his new-found power that has been encouraging this spring. He set a career high with 13 homers last year -- he had never topped 10 in a season -- and has a strong 6-foot-2, 190-pound frame.
Hicks put that power on full display in Clearwater on Thursday, when he hit three homers in a game for the first time since he was in high school in Long Beach, Calif. Hicks even received the lineup card as a keepsake, as he finished the day 4-for-5 and six RBIs.
His teammates were in awe of his performance and teased him after his impressive performance against the Phillies.
Hicks also made a throwing gaffe in center field that wasn't lost on Gardenhire, who talked to him in the dugout after the play. Hicks said he understood why his manager took him aside.
"It was perfectly understandable why he got into me," Hicks said. "I have to be able to hit the cutoff man. That's my job. That's what needed to be done, and I didn't do it."
That maturity has carried over into the clubhouse, where Hicks doesn't look like a wide-eyed kid even though this is his first time in big league camp.
Twins bench coach Terry Steinbach, who played 14 years in the Majors, said he has taken notice about the way Hicks carries himself around his teammates.
"Any time you get a young guy in camp and they're around veteran players, they can be tentative and shy, and you just want to see how they fit in, but so far, he's been fitting in well," Steinbach said. "Both personality-wise and you've seen him play out there. I've been impressed by the jumps he's been getting on balls. We've all heard about his speed, but when the ball is hit, he gets going. And I think we all saw [Thursday] that his bat speaks for itself. He's handling himself well at the plate."
As Steinbach pointed out, Hicks has showed off his elite speed and defense in center this spring -- and his strong throwing arm -- and it has also been observed by Minnesota's pitchers.
"He's a fun guy to watch, man," said right-hander Kyle Gibson. "He goes out there and plays hard and has a good arm out in the outfield. As you can see, he can swing the bat, so it's a lot of fun to watch him."
Hicks is expected to continue to get his fair share of starts in center field this spring, but Mastroianni is slated to return to action this weekend after missing a little more than a week with a sore left hamstring.
So with more than three weeks to go until the start of the regular season, the Twins aren't quite ready to hand over the center-field job to Hicks just yet. But with the way he's playing, it's getting tougher and tougher for the Twins not to declare him the outright favorite.
"He's done a nice job here obviously," Ryan said. "Gardy keeps putting him out there and he keeps responding, which is good."