Catching prospect Hicks’ stock still rising

ryan.divish@thenewstribune.comMarch 4, 2013 

PEORIA, Ariz. – In another organization, John Hicks would be getting all the attention. A young, athletic catching prospect who is outstanding defensively, and far better than average offensively: It’s something that every team covets.

And yet, when Seattle’s future at catcher is discussed, Hicks’ name isn’t the first to be mentioned.

He’s a bit of an unknown with just two minor league seasons of pro experience.

But the real reason has nothing to do with what Hicks has or hasn’t done since he was drafted out of the University of Virginia in the fourth round of the 2011 amateur free agent draft.

It’s because the Mariners drafted Mike Zunino, an ultra-talented catcher, with the third overall pick of last year’s draft.

In the short time since he was selected, Zunino has lived up to almost all the lofty expectations that made him the Mariners’ top pick a year ago.

And Hicks?

Well, he’s mentioned by scouts and analysts, but always after Zunino, who is considered the top position player prospect in the organization.

Does that matter to Hicks?

“No,” he said with a chuckle. “I don’t worry about that stuff.”

There is a no-nonsense attitude to Hicks. He works. He plays. He leads. Then he repeats it the next day.

That pattern has made him successful in his first two seasons in the Seattle organization.

Last year, in his first full season, Hicks played 121 games in Advanced Class A High Desert — catching 98. He hit .312 (158-for-506) with 32 doubles, 15 homers and 79 RBI with a .351 on-base-percentage and a .472 slugging percentage.

“I thought I had a decent year offensively,” he said. “I don’t strike out often. I just try and put the ball in play.”

While the offensive numbers were good, Hicks’ defense was outstanding. Of 106 baserunners who attempted to steal against him, Hicks threw out 57. His 53.8 caught-stealing percentage was the highest among full-season minor league catchers last season.

“The numbers are incredible,” Mariners manager Eric Wedge said.

How does he do it?

Well, arm strength helps.

“He’s got a cannon for an arm,” said Danny Hultzen, a top pitching prospect for the Mariners who had Hicks as a catcher at Virginia.

But plenty of catchers have strong arms and don’t throw out runners the way Hicks does. It’s the accuracy that makes his arm impressive.

“They all seem like they are right at the knee of the shortstop and all he has to do is tag the guy,” Hultzen said of Hicks’ throws.

Brad Miller, who was High Desert’s shortstop, didn’t disagree with that assessment.

“He’s awesome,” Miller said. “It seemed like he threw out pretty much everybody. He has a way of getting it down there regardless of what the pitcher is doing. He was always on the money.”

But it isn’t just throwing that defines him as a catcher. Hicks is outstanding at blocking pitches, calling an effective game and embracing details of the position that are beyond statistical analysis.

“I do throw the ball well,” Hicks said. “But I just try to do anything I can to help the pitchers out. I usually have a great relationship with my pitchers. I try to get to know those guys — what they throw best, what they like to do in tough situations. Everything.”

A catcher must be a leader on the field and Hicks has assumed that role at every level.

“Yeah, he is an awesome defensive catcher,” Hultzen said. “But what sticks out to me — he’s really a leader. He takes charge of the entire field, and especially that relationship between the pitcher and the catcher. There were dozens of times where he would come out and kind of slap me in the face and tell me, ‘Get your head in the game.’ He was really good at that.”

Going into spring training, Wedge mentioned his interest in seeing Hicks play. He hasn’t been disappointed.

“John Hicks is an athlete,’’ Wedge said with a grin.

Hicks looks like an athlete, not a catcher. It’s the first thing you notice about Hicks when he stands with the rest of the catchers in camp. He’s got a lean, muscular physique. At 6-foot-2, 210 pounds, he looks more like an outfielder. And he can run like an outfielder, too.

“He’s fast,” Hultzen said. “And I don’t mean fast for a catcher. I mean fast for a baseball player.”

Think about Jesus Montero’s speed – or lack of it. Hicks is the complete opposite of that. He even stole 22 bases last season.

This spring he’s hitting .571 (4-for-7). On Saturday against the Dodgers, he laced a two-run double to right-center field off of former Mariners closer Brandon League.

“You have to love the way he plays, whether it’s at home plate, catching, or at the plate hitting, and particularly on the basepaths,” Wedge said. “He’s a heads-up player. He’s a smart young man. He’s been very impressive in this camp so far.”

No matter how impressive Hicks is, he still sits behind Zunino on the depth chart. Hicks will likely begin the season at Double-A Jackson, with Zunino at Triple-A Tacoma.

“He’s such a good athlete,” Mariners director of player development Chris Gwynn said. “He’s further along at this point than people thought he would be, so that’s very positive.”

So, while Zunino gets the much-deserved hype, Hicks will still be there waiting for a chance.

“I just have to keep working every day,” Hicks said. “That’s what you have to do. If you do that, you’ll get your chance.”

SPRING TRAINING RECAP

MARINERS 7, RANGERS 6 (at SURPRISE Stadium)

The facts: It got a little interesting at the end with Mariners’ reliever Bobby LaFromboise giving up two runs in the ninth, but Seattle managed to hang on to win its ninth consecutive Cactus League game. The home-run parade also continued. Kendrys Morales and Jesus Montero both hit dingers in the win. That gives the Mariners 22 homers in 10 games — the most of any team in baseball this spring. Left-hander Joe Saunders looked solid in his two innings of shutout work, allowing one hit and walking one.

Play of the game: Mariners manager Eric Wedge was blunt about Montero’s two-run homer in the third inning off Justin Grimm. “That’s probably the best at-bat I’ve ever seen him have,” Wedge said. “Against a guy that was throwing it pretty good, with good stuff, he ended up winning it … in a big way.” Down 1-2 in the count, Montero fouled off three pitches, didn’t bite on a fastball up in the strike zone and then crushed a 93-mph fastball onto the berm in left-center field over the sign 379 feet from the plate.

Who was hot: Besides his two-run homer, Montero ripped a double down the left-field line and looked much better running the bases. Wedge was pleased with Montero’s overall intensity. “I felt like the last couple games, both offensively and behind the plate, that his play has been considerably different,” Wedge said. “I think it’s been very noticeable. That’s the way he needs to play always.”

Who was not: Hector Noesi appears to have little chance to make the Mariners. Blessed with great talent, but frustratingly inconsistent on the mound, the right-hander struggled in his third outing of the spring. Noesi allowed two runs on five hits and walked two batters in two innings. If not for a nice double play turned behind him to to get him out of his first inning, it could have been worse. He has a 14.73 ERA this spring.

Quotable: “That’s Joe Saunders. This guy knows how to pitch. He knows what he wants to do with the baseball. He knows how to add and subtract and move the ball around. The name of the game is keeping these guys off balance and that’s what he does.” — Wedge.

Extra innings: Felix Hernandez threw a modified simulated game Sunday morning. He threw 39 pitches and worked two innings. The only solid contact came with a line drive to center by 19-year-old minor league Gabriel Guerrero — the nephew of Vlad Guerrero. “It was fine,” Hernandez said. “I feel pretty good. It was different, because I sat down and then came back and pitched one more inning. It felt the same, felt pretty good.” Hernandez will make his first Cactus League start on Thursday, which is a split-squad day. and Wedge has not decided whether it will be against Kansas City or Oakland. … Mariners infielder Brad Miller ripped a line drive up the middle that struck the throwing wrist of Rangers left-hander Martin Perez, a projected starter. X-rays revealed a broken bone in his forearm and the team said Perez would be out at least two months.

On tap: Root Sports will air its first live television broadcast of the Mariners this spring. Jon Garland will make his second Cactus League start at 12:05 p.m. (PST), when Seattle plays host to the Colorado Rockies at Peroia. Also scheduled to pitch for the Mariners are Danny Hultzen and Taijuan Walker, a pair of top prospects, closer Tom Wilhelmsen, Stephen Pryor and Carter Capps.

Ryan Divish: 253-597-8483 ryan.divish@thenewstribune.com blog.thenewstribune.com/mariners @RyanDivish ryan.divish@thenewstribune.com

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