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Minnesota Twins Caravan stops in Willmar on Thursday

WILLMAR — The Minnesota Twins Winter Caravan has been coming to Willmar for many years, but today’s lineup could be the best it’s ever had.

Assembling 6 p.m. today at the Kandi Entertainment center will be Twins legends Rod Carew and Tony Oliva, starting pitcher Liam Hendriks and top prospects Aaron Hicks and Kyle Gibson.  

With consecutive last-place finishes in 2011 and 2012, the Twins are counting on young players like Hendriks, Hicks and Gibson to turn around the franchise. Minor leaguers don’t typically appear at Caravan stops, but Hicks and Gibson, two of the Twins’ five best prospects, could represent the next great Twins team.

Of the three current players appearing, Hendriks is the only one to have appeared in a Major League game, tossing 108-2/3 innings over the past two seasons.

Though Hicks and Gibson are untested, they could find themselves on the Twins’ opening day roster with strong spring training performances.

This offseason, the Twins traded two young outfielders in Denard Span and Ben Revere for pitching help, two players made expendable by the presence of centerfielder Hicks in the farm system.

Hicks was the Twins’ first-round draft pick in 2008 out of high school in California. He struggled in three seasons with Class-A Beloit and Fort Myers, but broke out last season with double-A New Britain, hitting .286 with a .384 on-base percentage and a .460 slugging percentage. He hit 13 home runs, stole 32 bases and possesses a strong arm in the outfield. Baseball America ranked him as the Twins’ No. 5 prospect heading into 2013.

The Twins took Gibson with their first pick of the draft a year later out of the University of Missouri. He dominated the low minors, posting a 2.96 ERA across three levels in 2010, but underwent Tommy John Surgery in 2011 after 18 starts with triple-A Rochester. He returned from surgery to pitch 28-1/3 innings at the end of the 2012 season and could be in the Twins’ starting rotation by the end of 2013. Baseball America named him the Twins’ No. 4 prospect for 2013.

Hendriks was an international signing by the Twins out of Australia. He didn’t have great numbers for Minnesota (5.71 ERA over two seasons) but is just 23 years old and performed well in the minors. He’s currently listed No. 4 on the starting pitching depth chart on the Twins’ official website.

Tickets for the Caravan are available for $8 at the door. Oliva, Hicks, Gibson and Hendriks will be signing autographs at the event.

Ben Brewster

Ben Brewster covers the Willmar Stingers and other area sports, as well as laying out the daily sports section cover for the West Central Tribune. Follow him on Twitter @benbrewster.

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