Byron Buxton Can Become MLB's 2016 Version of Carlos Correa, Kris Bryant

Danny KnoblerMLB Lead WriterFebruary 18, 2016

Sep 27, 2015; Detroit, MI, USA; Minnesota Twins center fielder Byron Buxton (25) hits a home run during the eighth inning against the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports
Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

Carlos Correa and Byron Buxton shared space atop draft boards in the spring of 2012, and they shared space on prospect lists in the years that followed. And when Correa showed up in the major leagues early last June, it seemed perfectly fitting that Buxton joined him there not even a week later.

But in a 2015 season that belonged to hot-shot rookies, Buxton was the one who wasn't quite ready. He was the one who showed promise but not polish, the one who tempted us with his talent but had us asking what he would become and when it would happen.

We're still asking now, but as spring training 2016 begins, Buxton is one of the guys we'll be watching the closestwatching and wondering if he can be to 2016 what Correa and Kris Bryant and Francisco Lindor and all the other super kids were to 2015.

He's not the only big prospect on this year's list. In fact, the big prospect rankings pushed Los Angeles Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager ahead of Buxton this past winter. But Buxton is the guy we've been waiting for, the possibly five-tool center fielder who, on his best days, earns comparisons to Mike Trout.

Carlos Correa
Carlos CorreaBob Levey/Getty Images
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He's the Minnesota Twins' center fielder-in-waiting, with the idea that the waiting ended when the Twins traded Aaron Hicks to the New York Yankees in November. The Twins have said Buxton will still need to win the job this spring, but they left it open with the idea that he will win it.

There will be no repeat of last year's Bryant controversy with the Chicago Cubs. If Buxton comes to camp and shows he's ready, he'll be in the Twins lineup on Opening Day.

But will he be ready? Will this season belong to him, the way 2015 belonged to Correa and Bryant?

Even the scouts, coaches and executives who know Buxton the best and like him the most aren't ready to answer that question. This kid is going to be good sometime, many of them told Bleacher Report over the last week.

But how good? And how soon?

"I think the raw tool set and athleticism is so overwhelming that he'll be a star," one scout who has followed Buxton's career and saw him several times last year said. "You have a potential All-Star. But do you have a potential Hall of Famer?"

The question seems unfair, but at the same time, it isn't. Buxton is just 22 years old, with a mere 46 major league games (he kept rookie status for 2016) and 1,069 minor league at-bats. He has missed considerable time with injuries, including wrist trouble in 2014 and a thumb injury last year.

Kris Bryant
Kris BryantJon Durr/Getty Images

The scouting scale numbers rank him up there with the greats—MLB.com gave him a top-of-the-chart 80 for speed, with a 70 for his arm and fielding, 65 for hitting and 55 for power (higher overall numbers than Trout had at the same stage)—but the stats remind you he struggled terribly in last season's cameo with the Twins.

Besides the .209 batting average and the 44 strikeouts in just 129 at-bats, Buxton showed little ability to recognize pitches. He admitted at times being overwhelmed, as when he struck out four times in a game against Chicago White Sox left-hander Chris Sale.

"You don't see that [pitching] down there [in the minor leagues]," he told reporters.

He wasn't ready, but Twins people remind you that they hadn't expected him to be ready. They were in a bind in the outfield, with Hicks and Torii Hunter both hurting, and Buxton was their best option at the time.

They didn't think he was ready then. By trading Hicks and opening center field for Buxton, they showed belief he is ready now.

At the worst, they think he can be a Gold Glove center fielder and a force on the basepaths, with occasional power and a chance to get on base often enough to contribute.

At best? Well, at best Buxton becomes the exciting rookie of 2016, the guy who takes a Twins team that already made progress last year and boosts it into the playoffs this season. Correa's Astros and Bryant's Cubs did it, so why not Buxton's Twins?

At worst, Buxton is a guy you'll want to watch, because speed like this is so exciting.

"He plays at a game speed that others can't," one Twins coach said.

"It's like his feet barely touch the ground," another American League Central coach said.

At best, he's something like Trout, a center fielder who makes a difference in the field, at the plate and on the bases. So maybe it's instructive that Trout batted just .220 (with 30 strikeouts in 123 at-bats) in his 2011 big league cameo, following it up with a 2012 season that won him the Rookie of the Year and nearly the Most Valuable Player award, as well.

The Twins remind you Buxton got better the longer he stayed at each level of the minor leagues. They say his major league at-bats improved as 2015 went on. They tell you he's a great kid with a great attitudethe kind likely to benefit from his 2015 struggles.

The Twins traded Aaron Hicks (left) to open center field for Buxton.
The Twins traded Aaron Hicks (left) to open center field for Buxton.Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

"The transition for him has always been how to deal with the next level of pitching," Twins manager Paul Molitor said at the winter meetings. "We saw some improvements, particularly in September. There will be a question of whether Triple-A at-bats are needed.

"Either way, he's going to be an impact player, I believe, for a long time. We're just going to see when that clock really starts ticking."

The issue for the Twins could be that one clock already started, with the 113 days of major league service time they gave Buxton in 2015. They need him to become a star fairly quickly, as in before free agency approaches and we start wondering whether they can afford to keep him.

For now, though, this is about 2016. This is about what Buxton can do right away, and whether he can once again be mentioned alongside Correa.

They were the first two players picked in 2012, with Correa going first and Buxton second. They were first (Buxton) and third (Correa) on the MLB.com prospect list going into last season.

They showed up in the big leagues on nearly the same day, but only Correa really arrived in 2015. Last year belonged to him.

This year, possibly, will belong to Byron Buxton.

Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

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