FORT MYERS, Fla. (AP) -- Denny Hocking has been with the Minnesota Twins longer than any other position player. He can play just about all those positions, too.
A 52nd-round draft pick, Hocking knows his niche, be it backing up nearly all the infield and outfield positions or providing a switch-hitting bat off the bench.
"As a utility guy, you have to prepare yourself for any given role at any given time at any part of the game," said Hocking, who hit a career-best .298 last year. "You try to work on your weaknesses."
The Twins' brass used to fear Hocking was too injury-prone to be a factor. He suffered a slew of injuries from 1993-96, including a lacerated lip and loosened teeth from a groundball that smacked him in the mouth. And it took him awhile to hit consistently.
Hocking batted .202 in 1998. Before a game that year, manager Tom Kelly yelled some encouraging words to Hocking during batting practice, turning to a bystander, "I talk to him once in awhile. It makes him feel important."
His versatility and experience are fairly important now, given the Twins' youth-stocked lineup.
"He has a good understanding of each position," Kelly said. "I think maybe the thought that he could be an everyday player was detrimental to his career. He's not that type of player."
Hocking, who first appeared with Minnesota in 1993, is one of the few Twins left who played with Kirby Puckett. He's also assumed some of Puckett's duties as clubhouse comedian.
Hocking leads the team-wide effort to razz Olympian Doug Mientkiewicz for his gold medal. There are other targets, too. In practice this week, burly David Ortiz belted a pitch off the center-field fence, prompting Hocking to yell, "Nice single."
Hocking recounted how Puckett convinced him to skip an extra fielding session in favor of a trip to the batting cage.
"Kirby Puckett's telling me, 'Let's go hit curveballs in the cage,' and he's going to help me do it," Hocking said. "Pretty much a no-brainer, isn't it?"
His utility role has him far from the spotlight, but with Cristian Guzman, 22, and Luis Rivas, 21, manning the middle of the infield, Hocking's help is beneficial as the double-play duo develops.
"Kirby's appointed me as one of the guys that has to be a leader on this team," Hocking said. "I relish that role. Unfortunately for the young guys, all the wisdom that they get is from a utility guy, second hand. But I got it from a Hall of Famer."
Notes: Pitchers Matt Kinney, Willie Martinez and Travis Miller, outfielder Brian Buchanan and second baseman Luis Rivas all signed contracts Wednesday, leaving the Twins with just six players on their 40-man roster without a deal for 2001. ... The Twins held their final full-team workout before exhibition play begins, and Kelly was extremely pleased with the extra work his team has put in on fundamentals so far this spring. "I don't think anybody is not working hard out there," he said. ... Pitcher Danny Mota was supposed to throw Wednesday, but a groin pull held him out of practice. ... Pitcher Kyle Lohse returned to camp after missing Tuesday with the flu. He threw in the bullpen.
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