Brewer Hicklen couldn't help but laugh a little. Yes, he knew it would be Saturday in two days. Yes, that meant everyone's attention would be on college football. Yes, he knows he's 23 years old. But..."I still think about it, I'll be honest with you, even at this age," he
Brewer Hicklen couldn't help but laugh a little. Yes, he knew it would be Saturday in two days. Yes, that meant everyone's attention would be on college football. Yes, he knows he's 23 years old. But...
"I still think about it, I'll be honest with you, even at this age," he said with a chuckle. "Playing on Saturdays was always a dream of mine. But so was this. This was as much a dream of mine, too, and not to pursue it, that would be selfish for all the wrong reasons. I'm grateful for the opportunity I have, and I really think my best days are ahead of me in this sport."
Indeed, that decision was simplified without Hicklen's input when his alma mater, the University of Alabama-Birmingham, shut down its football program ahead his sophomore year in 2015, leaving him to put aside hopes of playing wide receiver. But his shift exclusively to baseball was delayed, too. He'd suffered a torn left rotator cuff five days before his first baseball season, forcing him to redshirt and play only two years on campus. (Eager to show off his skills, he had caused the injury by diving for a ball in the outfield during batting practice.)
Between the split-sport focus going into college and the late start to his NCAA career, Hicklen may still be considered raw for a 23-year-old in Minor League Baseball, though he's got the plus-plus speed and power potential to make him the 15th-ranked prospect in the Royals system. Still, that's a label he would like to shed as quickly as possible.
"I think the path I'm on, it's made me hungrier," he said. "After redshirting and deciding to become a baseball player, I figured it was time to grow up. People look at me and see a raw, athletic baseball player, and that's great. I'm happy to be known as an athlete. But I want to be known as more of a baseball player first and foremost."
Hicklen's development path, which included being picked in the seventh round of the 2017 Draft, could make him a relatively late bloomer, and he provided a lot of evidence for that theory in 2019. The right-handed slugger played 22 games with Class A Advanced Wilmington in 2018 and returned to the Blue Rocks to open his second full season, only to get off to a slow start. Hicklen hit just .204 with a .561 OPS in 19 games in April, collecting one extra-base hit in 54 at-bats. He started to heat up again in May and June -- posting an OPS above .800 in both months -- only to slump again in July (.667 OPS in 27 games).
But the outfielder's hottest prolonged stretch by far came in August, after four months of learning the lay of the land. Hicklen, who hit 14 homers the entire season, went deep eight times in August, the most by any Carolina League hitter in the month. His .600 slugging percentage was also tops in the circuit, while he hit .295 and produced a .343 OBP. His .943 OPS also ranked third in the Carolina League in August.
That late run pushed Hicklen to finish the regular season sixth in the Carolina League with a .790 OPS over 125 games and fourth with a 131 wRC+ in the pitcher-friendly loop. Add in his league-best 39 stolen bases, and Hicklen made for an easy pick as a Carolina League end-of-season All-Star, the first such honor of his career.
At the end of his second full season, the late bloomer looked like he had bloomed.
"I've really always been working on my swing," he said. "I know I may not have the prettiest swing. It's not super flowy. But I am learning how to make my body work at the plate. My hitting coach [Larry Sutton] has done a really good job of breaking things down with me to the point where I know what it feels like when things are right or when things are wrong. ... But, really, where the power comes, it's when my approach is locked in. I'm always continuing to make in-game adjustments, but it's when my approach is good that everything comes together. I've learned that you can't have the same plan for every pitcher, so I needed to also [think] about what fits me for that specific pitcher and how I can exploit my own strengths."
When the Royals took Hicklen with the 210th overall pick in 2017 and signed him with a $337,500 bonus (nearly double the $196,900 assigned to that selection), they had reason to hope that this amount of power could be in the pipeline from his 6-foot-2, 208-pound frame. The speed was there and still is, as evidenced by the stolen bases. But if the bat plays as well as it did in August, Hicklen's overall profile could make an even bigger jump headed into 2020. He's already making steps to ensure that happens.
"It's been a lot of learning new things, and if you asked me two days ago, I might have been working on something different," Hicklen said. "But as of right now, it's a lot of working on that flow. Getting things going from the ground up when I start my swing. Finding my leg and then my back hip and then my elbow, and how that works into my swing. You do that through watching slow-motion video and through the eye test and see if everything is as much in sync as it could be. I've obviously always been more of a lower-half guy, but now it's trying to get the rotational work in my hands and separating them from the rest of the swing. That allows me to come around better on off-speed.
"That's just where I am now, but I'm always trying to find something to work on."
Hicklen is talking in the present tense since his season isn't over just yet. Wilmington is playing in the Mills Cup Finals, though it faces a 2-1 deficit to Fayetteville in a best-of-5 series. Such a scenario isn't wholly new to Hicklen and many of his teammates, including Kyle Isbel, MJ Melendez and Nick Pratto -- all of whom played on Class A Lexington's South Atlantic League title-winning team last season. That Legends squad dropped Game 1, only to win three straight and take the series in four. The current Blue Rocks group lost each of the first games of its semifinal with Salem before storming back with three straight victories.
If there's a group that knows a comeback, it's this group of Kansas City prospects.
"There's a lot of similarities in these playoffs," Hicklen said. "The first series [against Salem] reminded me of the Championship Series all over again. ... We just needed some timely hitting and the pitching to come through every time they're in there, and we've benefited from both of those each time. It's a lot of fun."
It may not be quite like playing on Saturdays in Birmingham's Legion Field (where capacity is 71,594). But if Hicklen entered professional baseball as a raw prospect, he's at least forming a foundation with impressive speed and promising power -- in other words, a pretty good baseball player in a farm system that needs plenty of them.
"It's funny," he said. "We've been thinking about how when we leave that locker room for the last time, we may never have the same team again. That's just how baseball works. Each year, there might be less and less of us. But with the foundation we're putting in, we hope we have the right group to bring a championship back to Kansas City some day."
Sam Dykstra is a reporter for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB.