Mackey: Byron Buxton could move up the ladder faster than people think
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This is Part 2 of a two-part series focusing on Byron Buxton, the Minnesota Twins' top pick in last year's draft. To read Part 1, click here.
Cedar Rapids has emerged as perhaps baseball's most underrated hotbed lately.
In 2010, the Low-A Kernels were treated to 18-year-old phenom Mike Trout, who tore through the Midwest League by hitting .362/.454/.526 with 32 extra base hits, 45 stolen bases and 76 runs scored in 81 games before his promotion to High-A Rancho Cucamonga.
Now, three years later -- following an affiliate parent swap from Los Angeles to Minnesota -- a 19-year-old Byron Buxton is hitting .373/.488/.647 with 15 extra-base hits, 13 stolen bases and 31 runs scored in his first 28 games.
There are two important things to note here:
1.) Cedar Rapids Kernels fans might be the most spoiled fans in minor league baseball history.
2.) If Buxton continues to hit at his current pace, he will wind up with better numbers than Trout through 81 games at Low-A in all of the aforementioned categories except for stolen bases.
Two years after tearing it up in Cedar Rapids, Trout, at age 20, won American League Rookie of the Year and finished second in AL MVP voting after posting numbers never seen in the history of Major League Baseball.
Your move, Buxton.
Or is it your move, Twins?
The Twins do have a reputation for slow-cooking most of their prospects. But the organization also has a history of pushing the prospects who are ready.
The Twins pushed a 21-year-old David Ortiz from Low-A to the major leagues within one calendar year in the late 1990's. Chuck Knoblauch went from Low-A to the majors within two years. Matt Garza, Joe Mauer and some others took similar, speedy paths to the bigs. Aaron Hicks, Chris Parmelee and Joe Benson are among those who jumped to the major leagues straight from Double-A.
Baseball is pretty damn hard. Most 19- or 20-year-olds would wilt immediately if thrown into the fire without proper seasoning. Look no further than Hicks, who, at age 23, is still miles away from the Mendoza Line in his first month in the majors.
At the very least, the Twins want Buxton to take a second lap through the Midwest League before they promote him to High-A Fort Myers. They want to see how opposing pitchers adjust to him and, subsequently, how Buxton readjusts. The same notion applies to Miguel Sano, who sits one rung higher up the ladder.
Buxton's current manager, Jake Mauer, already sees opposing teams attempting to make adjustments mid-series.
The keyword being "attempting."
"They'll challenge him with fastballs (early in the series), and he's hit some huge home runs in Cedar Rapids," Mauer said when reached via phone on the Kernels' recent road trip. "And the second, third, fourth day they're spinning it a little bit. ...
"Now they're starting to pitch him backwards a little bit. He's seeing breaking balls early in the count, and he's starting to lay off them and go the other way when he has to."
Buxton is a pretty quiet dude -- his personality more like Joe Mauer's than the sometimes-brash Sano's. But his game speaks loudly.
Scouts have compared Buxton's potential to that of Atlanta Braves outfielder B.J. Upton, but perhaps with a higher batting average than Upton's .252 career mark. And if Buxton adds a few pounds to his lean frame, it's possible his power numbers could spike down the road as well.
"He's probably the most talented prospect I've been around through the organization, and this is my seventh year," Jake Mauer said. "He's lean and long, and he moves really fluidly, and throws the ball easy, an easy speed, covers ground.
"I think the biggest thing with him is he's further along with the bat than I anticipated. He knows the strike zone, he's not afraid to take walks, he lays off of pitches, which really is part of the reason he's hitting .380. ... He's got some raw power. Obviously he's real lean, and a young kid, but if he fills out he's another one that could be really special."
People who've seen Buxton up close rave about his understanding of the strike zone, which is evidenced by the fact that he has walked more often than he has struck out so far this season.
Hicks, who is one notch higher up on the Twins' historical "center fielder of the future" chain, drew walks at a high rate in the minors as well, but he was also accused of being too patient -- not aggressive enough in hitter's counts, which is exactly what we've seen through his first five weeks in the majors as well.
"I think (Buxton) understands his swing a little more than Hicks did at this stage would probably be fair to say," Mauer said. "He recognizes pitches a little earlier that he can drive, and the ones that he should lay off of. ...
"He's got an eye at the plate. He's patient, sees the ball pretty good. He can hit the ball the other way. He hit a ball up in Afton, Wisconsin, opposite field out of the park, and that's a pretty big park out there. ... It makes that noise that a lot of those big guys do."
People in the organization are also impressed with Buxton's maturity, game instincts and baseball IQ.
The Kernels were up by a run late in a recent home game, and Buxton came to the plate with nobody out and a runner on first base after hitting a monster home run in his previous at-bat.
His team needed an insurance run, but Mauer didn't dare give Buxton the bunt sign, "because it's hard to give a guy the bunt sign when he just hit a ball 400 feet."
Buxton, on his own, dropped a beautiful bunt down the third base line -- bunting for a hit, but also knowing his team could benefit from that runner being moved over to second base.
"The third baseman made a hell of a play to throw him out at first base," Mauer said, "but he did all that on his own. ... He's one of those guys that you really don't have to tell what he needs to do. He pays attention to what's going on. He's able to pick up on things, which I think is a sign that he's a little bit beyond his years. ...
"What I'm really impressed with now is he's starting to take control in the outfield. He's recognizing swings. With young players, you've got to tell them (what to do in situations). With Byron, we just tell him the first game and now he's moving guys and taking more of a quarterback role out there in center, which is really good to see."
When asked how long he expected to have Buxton on his team, Mauer didn't care to speculate, which is understandable. Most managers probably don't care to speculate when their best player -- and the best player in their entire league -- will be moving on.
But barring an unforeseen, significant drop-off in production, this scribe recommends buying tickets to Kernels games before the middle of June.