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Hicks impresses while focusing on development

Young catcher starts Cactus League career with five at-bat hitting streak

PEORIA, Ariz. -- John Hicks knows he's at Mariners camp to learn and soak up as much experience as he can while providing extra depth for the catchers.

As a youngster who has yet to play above Class A in the Minors, Hicks knows his place. Which in this case is a locker tucked in the corner of Seattle's Peoria clubhouse, where he can observe and pick the brains of veteran players and fellow catchers.

But Hicks has done more than just sponge up every learning moment. The 23-year-old from Richmond, Va., quietly goes about his business, but he's made a pretty loud statement with his performance in the first few weeks of camp.

For starters, there's the bat. In Hicks' first five Cactus League plate appearances -- dating back to last year, when he got called up from Minor League camp to fill in sporadically and took two at-bats -- all he did was go 5-for-5 with a home run.

Hicks had not been retired until he grounded out in the eighth inning of Wednesday's victory against the Brewers.

"That's baseball," Hicks said with a grin. "You're going to get out. But it's been fun to get the opportunity to go out and play. I've been fortunate to have some balls drop in for base hits."

Hicks has hit well in the low Minors since the Mariners selected him in the fourth round of the 2011 First-Year Player Draft, when they took college teammate Danny Hultzen second overall. Hicks batted .309 in 38 games that year at Class A Clinton and then hit .312 with 15 home runs and 79 RBIs in 121 games last year with Class A Advanced High Desert.

But perhaps even more important in Hicks' development at this point is his play behind the plate, and he's handled himself well there this spring playing alongside veterans Kelly Shoppach and Ronny Paulino, as well as Jesus Montero, Jesus Sucre and Mike Zunino.

"It's a blast, learning from guys like Shoppach and Monte and Paulino -- guys who've been in the big leagues and know what it's like," Hicks said. "It's been fun. Those guys have taught me a lot. And working with the big league staff, there's a ton of knowledge here."

Manager Eric Wedge, himself a former catcher, likes the athleticism of the 6-foot-2, 210-pounder and notes that Hicks caught 53.8 percent of would-be basestealers last year, nailing 57 of 106 runners, the highest percentage in the California League.

"He has good hands behind the plate," said Wedge, "and good hands offensively as well."

Hicks entered camp with eyes wide open, and those pupils widened a little further when he had a chance to catch part of a Felix Hernandez bullpen session earlier this week. Hicks has caught nearly all of the 30 pitchers in camp by now, but adding Hernandez to his list definitely was a topper.

"He can do all kinds of things with the ball," Hicks said. "It almost seems like he can make up pitches. He's throwing a changeup at almost 90 mph and doing things most people don't do. The ball spins all over the place. As you can tell by the success he's had, he's got pretty special stuff."

Hicks may be the new kid in camp, but he's actually three months older than Montero. Hicks gained pretty good experience in three years at Virginia, where he was an All-ACC catcher his final season.

Hicks knows there's more to the position than just hitting and receiving, and he's working on those aspects of the game as well.

"As a catcher, your job is leadership and if you see something with the pitcher, to inform them, whether it's a 10-year vet or a younger guy," he said. "They're all willing to listen. Learning how to approach a guy is one of the most important things. Every guy is different, so I'm not going to approach a Felix the same way I'd approach a Hultzen, who I played college ball with and I know."

Hicks worked out with Hultzen during the offseason in Virginia, not knowing at the time that they'd be together again this spring, since it wasn't until about a month before camp that Hicks got word he'd be in big league camp.

"It was funny because I actually was sitting in my house with my older brother and he asked me, 'Hey, when are you going to find out when you're going to camp?'" Hicks said. "And about five minutes later, I got a call from Jack Zduriencik and [scouting director Tom McNamara], and they told me. So that was pretty cool."

Now Hicks is doing his best to make the most of the opportunity. And judging by his initial efforts, this won't be his last Major League camp.

Greg Johns is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB as well as his Mariners Musings blog.

Seattle Mariners, John Hicks, Danny Hultzen