For weeks after joining the low-Class A Lexington Legends in late April, Royals minor-leaguer Brewer Hicklen sat in the team’s dugout between at-bats with a journal propped on his lap.
He bore down on it with a pen and scribbled what he saw in his trip to the box before the thoughts raced out of his mind.
“Just to take the negative and turn it into a positive,” Hicklen said in late May, when he was hitting .295 with a .523 slugging percentage in his first 24 games of the season.
Journaling allowed Hicklen, who is 6 feet, 2 inches tall and weighs 208 pounds, to rein in his frustration and focus on what was in front of him. The mindset was something he’d practiced for months, after learning he didn’t make the Legends’ opening-day roster and wondering if he belonged in professional baseball at all.
He’s now parlayed the change of perspective into a promotion to Class A-Advanced Wilmington. He joined the Blue Rocks on Wednesday after collecting 48 RBIs, 20 stolen bases, 14 doubles and 13 homers in 66 games with the Legends.
“We like to get the college players moving a hair faster than the high school kids, especially ones that are emotionally very mature,” Royals assistant general manager J.J. Picollo said. “And Hick is exactly that. When guys can handle a little bit of adversity along the way and not get sidetracked, it makes you that much more confident that he can make that jump. That’s where we were with him.”
Hicklen, 22, was an early casualty of the front office’s minor-league roster construction. He’d done enough to earn a spot on a full-season team — Hicklen hit .321 with 20 extra-base hits in 39 rookie-level games after being drafted in the seventh round last summer out of Alabama-Birmingham and impressed officials with his work ethic in the spring — but the Royals only had eight outfield openings in Lexington and Wilmington. With 2016 draftees Kort Peterson and Nick Heath needing to get more Class A reps before advancing to the Class AA Texas League, there was no room yet for the Royals to promote any outfielders who finished last season in Lexington.
So Hicklen was left behind in Surprise, Ariz., at the end of spring training. While many of his fellow 2017 draftees started their first full year of minor-league life, Hicklen spent days brooding over the Royals’ decision. He struggled to reconcile the work he’d put in for six months in gyms and at baseball fields in Surprise and Birmingham, Ala., preparing for opening day to have the opportunity wrenched from his hands.
“It was kind of the first time that I was told no,” said Hicklen, who didn’t play his freshman year of college because of a rotator-cuff injury and only logged two seasons at UAB before being drafted. “It was really challenging for me. I was kind of depressed there for a little while.”
Hicklen’s scorn over the snub lasted just a few weeks. He joined the Legends on April 22, settled into his approach after striking out 13 times in his first 27 at-bats and earned a promotion within three months. By then, he’d improved his batting average to .290 and dropped his strikeout rate to about 31 percent.
“I’m just trying to attack the fastball and it’s working out for me so far,” Hicklen said last week when the Legends played the Augusta Greenjackets in North Augusta, S.C. “There’s definitely areas for me to improve, but I’m seeing it pretty well, and I’ve got some good guys behind me, able to drive me in.”
Although he wasn’t named a South Atlantic League All-Star like Royals prospects M.J. Melendez, Nick Pratto, Seuly Matias and Sebastian Rivero, Hicklen’s progress caught Picollo’s eye.
“The timing here just made sense,” Picollo said. “He’d come off a good road trip and we wanted to keep him moving.”
Elsewhere in the minor leagues
▪ Promoted to Wilmington alongside Hicklen was right-handed pitcher Jacob Condra-Bogan, whom the Royals signed this winter out of the Frontier League. He posted a 2.08 ERA in 16 games for the Legends and held opponents to a .189 average. He allowed three runs on three hits in his first appearance for the Blue Rocks on Friday night.
▪ Outfielder Elier Hernandez recorded three hits and drove in two runs in his Class AAA Omaha debut on Friday. Hernandez, a Dominican player the Royals signed for $3 million as a 16-year-old during the 2011 international period, had stalled in 2017. A groin injury limited him to 30 games at Wilmington and 16 games at Class AA Northwest Arkansas.
But after getting through 19 games in the Arizona Fall League, he returned to Northwest Arkansas this season and batted .287 with 22 doubles and 50 RBIs in 91 games. He struck out 71 times in that span and earned a promotion this week.
▪ Also in Omaha, reliever Richard Lovelady threw 2 2/3 scoreless innings in the Storm Chasers’ 6-3 victory Friday over Round Rock, continuing a dominant streak. Lovelady, who has advanced through the system quickly since being drafted in the 10th round out of Kennesaw State in 2016, has allowed just four earned runs since the beginning of June.
He labored in May, batters hitting him at a .250 clip over 16 1/3 innings. But in his last 26 1/3 innings spanning 13 games, Lovelady has scattered 18 hits. He’s struck out 24 batters and issued just seven walks.
Lovelady’s 2.77 ERA ranks sixth among Pacific Coast League pitchers who have logged at least 50 innings this season. Teammate Trevor Oaks leads the pack with a 2.12 ERA in 15 starts.