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Mackey: Byron Buxton might be the fastest player Tom Kelly has seen

by Phil Mackey, 1500ESPN.com Updated 19 months ago | 7808 reads

This is Part 1 of a two-part series focusing on Byron Buxton, the Minnesota Twins' top pick in last year's draft.

Having been around professional baseball since 1968, former Minnesota Twins manager Tom Kelly has witnessed quite a few speedy players.

He certainly got an up-close look at St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Vince Coleman, who stole 752 career bases, including a handful against Kelly's Twins in the 1987 World Series.

And Rickey Henderson, who terrorized base paths in the American League for parts of four decades.

Otis Nixon, Kenny Lofton, Tim Raines...

Currently a special instructor with the Twins, Kelly has also been able to watch 2012 No. 2 overall pick Byron Buxton run around the bases and across the outfield grass during extended spring training in Fort Myers.

In an interview with 1500 ESPN last week, Kelly, unprompted, sifted through the vast baseball archives in his brain -- Tom Goodwin, Gary Pettis, Brett Butler -- and called Buxton "The fastest runner I think I've ever seen."

"I watched Willie Wilson, I watched Devon White, I watched (Greg) Gagne go from first to third, I watched a lot of guys run," Kelly said. "And this fella might be faster than all of them. ... He's the real deal."

High praise that validates what Twins scouting director Deron Johnson said about Buxton on the day he was drafted -- "He's an absolute 8 runner on a scale of 2-8," Johnson said last June.

"We were out there scouting him (last May) in a playoff game. He scored from second base on the sacrifice fly to right field. I had never seen that before. The right fielder was shocked and he just kind of panicked and threw the ball into second and he just kept going. He has game-changing speed."

A YouTube video has surfaced of the Cedar Rapids Kernels' April 13 game against the Clinton Lumber Kings. In it (see the :35 mark), Buxton hits a fairly routine bouncing ball to Clinton shortstop Ketel Marte, who charges and fires to first base. Buxton beat it by a step.

"He just floats," said Cedar Rapids manager Jake Mauer. "He looks like a sprinter. He's got probably that world-class speed."

Buxton, a 19-year-old kid from Baxley, Georgia, is running roughshod through the Midwest League, and not just with his legs. Buxton entered Sunday hitting .383/.504/.681 with 15 extra-base hits, 29 runs, 23 RBIs, 12 stolen bases and more walks (23) than strikeouts (20) in his 26 games played so far this season.

The Twins want to see how he handles a second tour through the league before perhaps promoting him to High-A Fort Myers.

Ironically, the only real nitpick Mauer has about Buxton -- "The man's hitting .380," he said. "It's hard to nitpick a little bit here" -- is related to base stealing.

Buxton was thrown out four times in his first 10 stolen base attempts this year, despite the blazing speed, so Mauer and other coaches have worked with Buxton on his leads at first base. The tutelage seems to have worked, as Buxton has now stolen five bases in his last 10 games without being caught.

"It's going to come with experience, understanding when to take a little more, when to take a little less. And we've got to improve his jumps," Mauer said. "Again, the man had 10 stolen bases in the first month. It's hard to nitpick. But this is a guy that could steal 50, 60 bases with his speed. I think it's just a matter of him starting to see more pitchers, have an understanding of a slide step, when to get down -- green lights, when's a good time to go?

"He's a man that's going to have the green light most of his career, but also the other teams are going to pay a lot of attention to him because they know he's got the ability to steal bases. It'll all come with development. But with his makeup, he's starting to see a little bit of improvement here. He's a little more aggressive with his leads now, which is a good thing."

Of course, burners like Coleman and Wilson played in an era where stealing upwards of 80, 90 and 100 bases was more common for the fastest players in baseball. The game has changed, and rarely do players surpass the 50 mark anymore.

Buxton has that type of potential, people with trained eyes say, but if he develops properly speed will only be one facet of a five-tool set.

Phil Mackey is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
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