When it comes to spring training, every fan is interested in getting an early look at baseball’s top prospects.
This year, all eyes will be on Byron Buxton, Prospect Pipeline’s No. 1-overall prospect for the 2014 season, who was invited to major league camp by the Minnesota Twins.
Without a game of experience above the High-A level, it’s extremely doubtful that the 20-year-old outfielder will make the Twins’ Opening Day roster. However, with five legitimate plus tools to his name and baseball skills that transcend his age, Buxton is poised to open eyes this spring and assert his proximity to the major leagues.
2013 in Review
Selected by the Twins with the second-overall pick in the 2012 draft, Buxton had a good (but not great) professional debut later that summer during which he showcased loud tools but also a lack of consistency—especially at the plate.
Splitting the season between the complex level Gulf Coast League and Rookie-level Elizabethton, Buxton batted .248/.344/.448 with 19 extra-base hits, 11 stolen bases and a 41-19 strikeout-to-walk rate in 189 plate appearances.
And then the 2013 season happened.
Buxton emerged as baseball’s top prospect last year in his full-season debut, posting a .944 OPS with 49 extra-base hits (12 home runs), 55 stolen bases in 74 attempts and an impressive 105-76 strikeout-to-walk rate in 574 plate appearances between both Class-A levels—as a 19-year-old nonetheless.
He opened the season on fire at Low-A Cedar Rapids, posting a .944 OPS, 33 extra-base hits (eight home runs), 32 stolen bases and a stellar 56-44 strikeout-to-walk rate in 321 plate appearances.
As a result of his overwhelming success, the Twins decided to promote Buxton to High-A Fort Myers for the second half of the regular season, where he continued to put up monster numbers in spite of the inherent challenges associated with playing in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League.
Overall, the then-teenager batted .326/.415/.472 with 16 extra-base hits, 23 stolen bases and a 49-32 strikeout-to-walk rate. Furthermore, Buxton’s final month of the regular season was arguably his best of the year, as he posted a .402/.523/.494 batting line with 16 steals and more walks (20) than strikeouts (16).
In the wake of his historically good full-season debut, the Twins sent Buxton to the prestigious Arizona Fall League to get him additional experience against advanced pitching. However, the toolsy outfielder was unable to maintain his torrid pace at the plate and showed signs of wearing down after playing in 125 games during the regular season. As a result, Buxton batted only .212/.288/.404 with two stolen bases and 15 strikeouts while playing in 12 games for the Glendale Desert Dogs.
To make matters worse, Buxton was shut down toward the end of the AFL with a minor left shoulder injury (bone bruise and tendinitis) that he suffered earlier in the fall, which explains a lot of the swings I saw in person during my week-plus stay in Arizona.
In each look, the explosiveness that I came to love this summer was dialed back, and he appeared slightly tentative at times during games—a telltale sign that he was fearful of swinging through a pitch and worsening an injury.
Thankfully, Buxton’s injury has fully healed over the last few months, according to Mike Berardino of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, and isn’t expected to be an issue moving forward.
Buxton is a rarity in that he’s a teenager with a realistic ceiling of a plus-plus hitter at maturity. While his off-the-charts bat speed and direct path to the ball will give him a chance to hit at the highest level, it’s the mature approach and pitch recognition that could make him one of the game’s top hitters in his prime.
The 20-year-old’s in-game power potential was widely questioned when the Twins drafted him in 2012. However, Buxton’s advanced approach and impressive bat speed allowed it to develop ahead of schedule last season, as he showcased plus raw power to all fields that should ultimately translate to 20-plus home runs annually at maturity. Beyond that, his wheels—which you’ll read more about momentarily—will make him an extra-base machine for the duration of his career and place him among the league leaders in total bases.
Buxton’s 80-grade speed, a product of his insanely good athleticism, is arguably his most impressive tool—which says a lot. In spite of his lack of experience, he’s already an excellent baserunner capable of taking an extra base with relative ease. His speed also caters to his present ability and future potential as a base stealer, and amazingly it plays up even more thanks to his high baseball IQ.
With all that’s already been said about Buxton’s speed and overall baseball aptitude, his projection as an elite defender in center field shouldn’t come as a surprise. Though he has the natural athleticism and speed to run down virtually everything, Buxton’s jumps and aggressive (but direct) routes are especially impressive for a player his age.
Spring Training: What to Expect
Buxton technically participated in his first major league spring training last year prior to his full-season debut, appearing in one game for the Twins before an inevitable re-assignment to minor league camp.
Yet, one game was all Buxton needed to make a strong impression, as the outfielder went 1-for-4 with three runs scored and a pair of stolen bases.
The 20-year-old should receive significant playing time this spring considering he’s already viewed as a potential late-season call-up. The Twins are eager to see how Buxton fares against major league-caliber pitching, and a strong showing against advanced competition could potentially improve his estimated time of arrival in The Show.
Even if Buxton struggles at the plate, his capacity to impact the game on all sides of the ball is impossible to overlook. Basically, the outfielder really can do no wrong this spring.
With five potentially plus tools and a feel for making in-game adjustments, Buxton has the ceiling of an MVP-caliber player in his prime. Assuming he begins the 2014 season at Double-A New Britain and stays healthy, Buxton has a legitimate chance to finish the year in the major leagues.