FORT MYERS, Fla. — While Kris Bryant pummels baseball after baseball into oblivion in the Cactus League, whipping the when-will-he-debut debate into a frenzy from Arizona to the Billy Goat Tavern in Chicago, he's not the only phenom dropping jaws this spring.
The first two picks from the 2012 draft, Minnesota's Byron Buxton (No. 2) and Houston's Carlos Correa (No. 1), are very close to introducing themselves in a big way this season. And they're already drawing comparisons that seem almost incomprehensible.
Though the Twins sent Buxton to minor league camp last week, the outfielder, who many view as the game's top prospect, should reach the majors at some point this summer.
"Mike Trout Two," veteran outfielder Torii Hunter says.
"Yes. Oh my God."
Those words carry some heft, from both men. Hunter helped groom Trout during his first two seasons in the majors and remains close to the American League MVP. And Hinch roomed with A-Rod when they were 16 years old and playing for Team USA in Mexico.
In returning to the Twins organization for the first time since 2007, it didn't take Hunter long to fall in love with Buxton.
"Unbelievable," says Hunter, who also has been impressed by center fielder Aaron Hicks, third baseman Miguel Sano and young slugger Kennys Vargas. "There is some good talent over here. I'm excited to be a part of it and watch the guys grow."
Buxton played in only 44 games last season because of a wrist injury and a concussion suffered in an ugly outfield collision. Then, he left the Arizona Fall League early when he needed finger surgery.
So the main thing with him, says Twins general manager Terry Ryan, is to simply play.
"We need to get him repetitions," Ryan says. "I'd hope at some point Byron will surface in Minnesota this season. He's that type of player."
A legitimate five-tool player, Buxton, 21, is a potential walking highlight reel as a center fielder whose speed on the bases is impressive and whose bat is expected to help change the Twins' declining fortunes.
Because of his lost season in 2014 and his relative lack of experience, the Twins were determined to resist the temptation to fast-track him. Instead, they're hoping to strategically place him in a spot early this season where he can succeed, develop confidence and gain professional momentum.
"People think we're way too patient, and a lot of people want us to push players faster," Ryan says. "When a player dominates at an affiliate, we will move him along. Sano (returning from Tommy John surgery) has a lot of rust; he played in no games last year.
"Byron had an injury-riddled season. He's OK now. He's gifted, he's a good teammate, he gets the responsibility of being one of the top prospects in the game. He's coachable, he treats people with respect, he's a good human being who happens to have skills better than most."
Correa, 20, was the first overall pick in '12 and is compared to A-Rod mostly because of his body type—6'4", long arms—though his skills are coming quickly, and scouts think 25 homers a year is attainable. Correa missed the second half of last season with a broken fibula, and given that he was in Class A ball at the time, don't expect him to break camp with the Astros.
"One of the most impressive parts of him is his maturity and demeanor," Hinch tells Bleacher Report. "The physical talent, everybody knows about. But when you're close to him on a daily basis, you really get why he has a chance to have success.
"He's got a very good demeanor beyond his years, and that will allow him to handle the responsibilities of going 1-1 (first pick overall of the first round)."
2. Ryu, the Dodgers and…Hamels?
Hyun-Jin Ryu flew back to Los Angeles on Monday to have his aching left shoulder examined. He is expected to return to Camelback Ranch on Tuesday, though when he returns to the Dodgers rotation is anybody's guess at this point.
Of course, immediately the industry turned its eyes to Philadelphia ace/trade bait Cole Hamels, and how much sense he makes for Los Angeles.
He absolutely does…but in the Dodgers' eyes, not if it costs them infield prospect Corey Seager and pitching phenom Julio Urias. Do not expect the Dodgers to move those guys, at least not unless or until news comes that Ryu's injury is significant enough to sideline him for a good chunk of the season.
For now, the Dodgers are moving ahead and making their April plans with what they've got behind Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Brandon McCarthy and Brett Anderson.
"There are a lot of different things we're looking at," says manager Don Mattingly, who notes that the club does not need a fifth starter until April 13 or 14, and then not again until April 23 or 24.
For that first date, the Dodgers may wind up using some combination of their bullpen, maybe starting with Chad Gaudin or David Huff, or using a starter already optioned to the minors. Joe Wieland, Zach Lee, Carlos Frias and Mike Bolsinger are the most likely candidates.
3. The Continuing Adventures of the Big Potato
Jose Valverde turned 37 Tuesday, March 24, and you would not think that is a good career move for a three-time All-Star whose star has been fading more rapidly in recent years than that of Tom Cruise.
Yet here Valverde is, looking to perform mission impossible in San Diego's camp, and he just may pull it off.
The man who was released by the New York Mets last May 26 and by the Detroit Tigers in August 2013 is close to finding new life. He's throwing well and opening eyes.
Cameron Maybin, the Padres outfielder, spent a month this winter as Valverde's teammate in the Dominican Republic, playing for the Toros del Este in La Romana.
"He was nasty, man," Maybin says. "He was 96 to 99. Every time I saw him, he was chucking. Pretty impressive.
"Man, I'll tell you what: From what I've seen, he's got everything it takes to get the job done."
A scout working the Cactus League noted the other day that velocity never was a problem for Valverde, even as the bottom dropped out on him in Detroit and New York. Rather, his breaking pitches were too flat, the scout said.
"You know, it's a different year, a different uniform, different friends," says the man affectionately known as Papa Grande (or, Big Papi or, yes, Big Potato). "Everything is great."
Valverde says he talked to a half-dozen or so teams over the winter, and another of his winter ball teammates, former Padre Yasmani Grandal, sold him on San Diego.
"He told me it was a great team, and the players were great," Valverde says. "I always wanted to play here. San Diego is a great city. Nice and clean."
4. Giant Trouble?
Panda is gone, Hunter Pence is out for another few weeks and Angel Pagan took two injections in his back last week. Being that Pagan underwent back surgery last summer, this is not a good development in San Francisco.
Meantime, the defending world champions swung and missed while attempting to sign Jon Lester over the winter, and now the bottom three spots in their rotation are questionable: Can Tim Lincecum again find consistent success (even if not at his old elite level)? And do Tim Hudson (39) and Jake Peavy (33) have enough fuel to make it through the grind of a six-month season?
Lots of issues, but…
"There's no panic in this room," Peavy quips. "There's no panic, other than Joe Panik."
5. Heads-Up on Oakland
Maybe you gave up on the Oakland A's when they dealt Josh Donaldson, Brandon Moss and seemingly every other 2014 All-Star they employed over the winter.
Mistake, if you did, is the word from one corner of the A's bullpen.
"We're going to be better than people think," reliever Sean Doolittle says. "The jury was out for a while this winter. But we're going to have a better-balanced lineup, better infield defense, and we're not going to miss Josh Donaldson as much as we thought."
The key is Donaldson's replacement, Brett Lawrie. Everyone agrees Lawrie, 25, possesses game-changing talent. But in four big league seasons, he's never stayed healthy enough to play in more than 125 games. And in the other three seasons, he's never played in more than 107.
He plays "as if his hair is on fire," says one admiring teammate, who agrees that, at times, Lawrie probably needs to tone it down for his own good. Part of the thinking in Oakland too is that getting Lawrie off that artificial turf in Toronto will help.
Manager Bob Melvin understands the need not only to keep Lawrie healthy but to keep injury-plagued Coco Crisp on the field, too. And he is determined to do it.
"There will be days this season Coco will go 3-for-4 with a game-winning RBI, and he won't be on the field the next day," Melvin says. "And I'll be booed considerably."
6. What Would Doo Do? Teach!
The new batch of promotional ads for individual clubs are coming out, and the aforementioned one featuring Oakland reliever Sean Doolittle teaching the manager and coaching staff how to use social media is a keeper.
7. Change of Tune in San Diego
Without a doubt, the biggest change this spring is in the San Diego Padres clubhouse, which has a completely different vibe now than it had for the past several seasons.
There are so many new faces, in fact, that manager Bud Black has taken the concept of team-bonding exercises to new levels. To help break the monotony of spring camp and maybe build tighter bonds, the Padres held a short wiffle ball game on one of the smaller backfields.
And man, did the players have fun.
There was Matt Kemp getting on Jake Goebbert, who was on the other team, regarding something about "Pumpkin comes and messes it all up." Goebbert's family owns a pumpkin farm in Illinois.
There was Black, the final arbiter of any disputes involving whether players got a single or double depending on where the ball landed. There was Kemp, telling Justin Upton to "Get your ass out there" when Upton's team went out quickly at the plate and had to take the field.
When Kemp's team won, he and new catcher Derek Norris leapt into each other's arms as if they had just clinched the pennant.
There is a definite confidence, and a joy, in San Diego's camp this year.
"Things always are optimistic in the spring, regardless," Padres second baseman Jedd Gyorko says. "But I think in years past we hoped that we would win. And this year, we expect to win.
"We're all loving it. It's exciting to see the changes we made, to get the hitters we did."
8. The Switch-Pitcher and the Future
I wrote about Oakland's Pat Venditte last week, and because the story was getting long, I left a couple of interesting observations out about Oakland's unique hurler.
First, from catcher Josh Phegley: "I was talking with the other catchers about this, but earlier in the spring, they would have him throw a full sideline left-handed, and I'd catch. Then he would throw a full sideline right-handed, and there would be a different catcher. So you would only see him from one side."
The difficulty, then, became catching Venditte in a game. If Phegley only caught him as a lefty, and he switched to throw righty, the ball was coming from a totally different angle that Phegley hadn't seen.
"The first time I caught him in a game, it was such a different feel," Phegley says. "You don't expect someone to throw two different breaking balls that dive differently—one dropping down to the left, one dropping down to the right…
"I've never caught a knuckleballer, but it's got to be similar."
And this from outfielder Sam Fuld: "If you ask me, I don't think this will escalate to the number of switch-hitters we see, but I think you will see some switch-pitchers in the future. I wouldn't be surprised to see some dads working on that with their kids."
• One scout in the Cactus League on the Dodgers' rookie center fielder: "Joc Pederson, wow. He's the real deal. Reminds me of Fred Lynn in the outfield, and he's got some sting in his bat. More power than you realize."
• Yasmany Tomas, who signed a six-year, $68.5 million deal with the Diamondbacks this winter, is going to need more time than expected to adjust. He is struggling at third base this spring and taking longer than Arizona hoped to look good at the plate.
• For all of the optimism in Cubs camp, hot prospect Javier Baez is not living up to the hype, routinely looking overmatched at the plate and swinging at far too many pitches out of the strike zone. "It's easy to get him out," one scout says. "Just get ahead of him (in the count), and then throw nothing but balls."
• In Detroit's camp, the Tigers are thrilled that reliever Joakim Soria is throwing much better now than he was a year ago at this time. Joe Nathan remains as the team's closer, but, well, you know how that went last year. Stay tuned.
9a. Rock 'n' Roll Lyric of the Day
You would hope that in a post-Jackie Robinson world, things would be a lot further along than they are, wouldn't you?
"Racism lives in the U.S. today
"Better get hip to what Martin Luther King had to say
"I don't want my kids being brought up this way
"Hatred to each other is not okay
"Well I'm not a preacher just a singer son
"But I can see more work to be done
"It's what you do and not what you say
"If you're not part of the future then get out of the way"
—John Mellencamp, Peaceful World
Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.
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