IMAGINE HAVING THE NEXT BRYCE HARPER OR MIKE TROUT IN YOUR SYSTEM—THEN IMAGINE HAVING THEM BOTH. THAT'S HOW MINNESOTA FEELS WITH BYRON BUXTON AND MIGUEL SANO, NEITHER OF WHOM IS OLDER THAN 20. TIME IS ON THEIR SIDE
This is an article from the Aug. 19, 2013 issue
We could begin with the power, or the speed, or the athleticism that has inspired comparisons with Bo Jackson, Josh Hamilton and Robert Griffin III. But let's begin with the arm, with a tale that has nothing to do with baseball.
True story: Byron Buxton once threw a football 82 yards. It was before a high school football practice two years ago in Baxley, a hamlet tucked away in a thinly-populated swath of southern Georgia. Someone asked Buxton, then a junior and the quarterback at Appling County High, how far he could throw a football. Buxton walked to the goal line, took a half step and launched the ball into the air. Twins scout Jack Powell, who was in town to check in on Buxton—also a star centerfielder for Appling—recalls squinting when the ball finally made landfall. "They measured it out—82 yards," Powell says. "One of the most amazing things I've ever seen."
Powell, 58, has been scouting in the South for more than three decades—he signed Jose Bautista and Matt Moore, and can spin yarns about a young Jackson blazing across the baseball fields of Alabama and of a young Hamilton hitting 500-foot home runs in North Carolina. Of all the players he's seen, only Hamilton rated higher than Buxton: On the 20-to-80 scouting scale Hamilton was an 80 for every tool—power, speed, average, arm and range—while Buxton topped out in every category but power. "Byron was a 70—Josh was an 80 because he was bigger and stronger as a teenager, but Byron will be an 80 eventually," says Powell. "Like Josh, like Bo, Byron could always do anything he wanted on the baseball field—these are guys that come around once every 10 years."
When Walt Whitman wrote, "Gliding o'er all, through all,/Through Nature, Time, and Space," he could have been describing the mesmerizing poetry of Byron Buxton in motion. His 190 pounds of sinewy, fast-twitch muscles are seemingly exempt from the laws of physics. You would call him a man among boys, except for the fact that he's a baby-faced teenager who's been among the youngest on the roster at each of his minor league stops. He doesn't throw baseballs from the outfield, he launches them. He doesn't run across the field so much as float, with strides that are long, loose, almost liquid.
Buxton is so fast that he reaches first on two-hoppers to the shortstop, scores from second on wild pitches and steals bases on pitchouts standing up. In 2012 he carried Appling to its first state championship, not only with his bat and his legs but also as a starting pitcher—he struck out 18 in a shutout in the final and had his fastball clocked as high as 98 mph. The Twins took him with the second pick in the draft, and a year later he is rocketing up prospect rankings (he started this season ranked 10th by Baseball America and was No. 1 on its midseason list) while tearing through the Minnesota system. He began the year at Class A Cedar Rapids and after 68 games was promoted to High A Fort Myers, where at 19 he's the second-youngest player in the Florida State League. In his first 104 games of the season at the two levels he hit .318 with a .402 on-base percentage and 12 home runs, 15 triples and 42 stolen bases. "What he's doing at his age, it's comical," says Fort Myers manager and former Twins first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz. "He looks like a god wearing a baseball uniform. Forget the bat. If he were playing centerfield in the majors he'd be a Gold Glover right now."
Barely a year removed from his senior prom, Buxton is already being called, among other things, a baseball phenomenon, the savior of Minnesota baseball, the Next Mike Trout.
And yet, Byron Buxton may not even be the most talented prospect in the Twins system.
No, Buxton, he's the best—he can do everything," insists Miguel Sano, the 20-year-old third baseman from the Dominican Republic who is making his own run at the title of Best Prospect in Baseball. He can do at least one thing better than Buxton: hit the ball a country mile. A product of San Pedro de Macoris, a city teeming with goat-chewed neighborhood fields and milk-carton-gloved boys with dreams of becoming the next Robinson Cano or Alfonso Soriano, Sano was one of the most celebrated baseball stars on the island as a teenager. In 2009 he signed with the Twins for $3.15 million, and he is fulfilling his promise, and more. After putting up the highest OPS of any hitter in 14 years in the Florida State League (1.079) in 56 games with Fort Myers, Sano was promoted to Double A New Britain on June 10. Through Sunday he had hit 13 home runs and slugged .597 with an OPS of .961 in 47 games there. He is already being compared with the great righthanded power hitters in the game, from Miguel Cabrera to Albert Pujols to Giancarlo Stanton.
Sano placed third on Baseball America's midseason prospect list. Soon, perhaps as soon as next summer, he and Buxton will be in the lineup together in Minnesota, resurrecting—the Twins hope—a franchise that hasn't had a winning season since 2010. "Most of us wait a decade to have one guy in our system that's a franchise-changing talent," says the general manager of an American League team. "To have two? It's like having Harper and Trout both, in one organization."
With Miguel Sano, there's only one place to begin: the power.
True story: In 2009, with an armada of big league scouts in attendance and a potential multimillion-dollar contract at stake, Sano, then just 15, stepped up to the plate at the Twins' training facility in the Dominican and hit eight straight balls out of the ballpark. The last home run sailed over a flag beyond the centerfield wall, over a clump of trees beyond, over a creek and then onto a parking lot. "You just don't see kids that age do that," says Minnesota vice president of player personnel Mike Radcliff. That was the day Minnesota decided it was all in on the boy known to the locals as Bocaton (Loudmouth).
The last teenager with this kind of raw power was a certain faux-hawked bro from Las Vegas; when you see Sano's swing and power in person, the Bryce Harper comps make sense. "The power is extreme," Baseball Prospectus writer Jason Parks reported after a trip to New Britain, "and made me question my religious beliefs."
Sano is a 6'4", 200-pound man-child, the kind of physical specimen that would have SEC football coaches breaking NCAA recruiting rules. His swing is a quiet, compact whip—instant violence, without the long follow-through of, say, Pujols. Sano's head stays down and his meaty hands back to react to the late break of the pitch. Even his pop-ups are impressive: During a recent game in New Britain, Sano skied a ball to leftfield, well short of the warning track. When it finally landed two scouts in the stands, both holding stopwatches, looked at each other, dumbfounded: The ball had been in the air for 7.8 seconds. A seven-second hang time on a fly ball is extraordinary. Seven-point-eight is unheard of.
The drama leading up to Sano's signing—he and his family were rumored to have falsified his identity and his age by a year or two—was chronicled in the 2012 documentary Ballplayer: Pelotero, which follows Sano and another young Dominican, Jean Carlos Batista, in the months before they were eligible to sign with a major league team. Sano was cleared of any wrongdoing (in the documentary, Sano's family makes a convincing case that he was wrongly accused), though not before the damage was done. It had been widely thought that his signing bonus would shatter the record for a Dominican player, but by the time Major League Baseball gave teams the green light to sign Sano, only two aggressive bidders remained: the Twins and the Pirates, who offered just over $2 million.
Sano's age now seems almost irrelevant. "Is there a chance he's not as young as they say he is?" says a Twins official. "Even if there's a 10% chance, it doesn't change the fact that whether he's 20, 21, or 21 years and six months, he's a great player."
Fred Guerrero, the Twins' scout in the Dominican, saw it six years ago, when he first glimpsed the then 160-pound Bocaton on a field. "You could see the swing back then—so free and easy, the ball just jumping off the bat," he says. "Even then, the sound of the baseball off his bat was different, like a gunshot." Guerrero and Sano talk and text regularly, but they hadn't seen each other in three years when Sano returned home last fall to play in the Dominican winter league. "I was surprised at how big he was," says Guerrero. "Then in the game [in San Pedro] he hit a ball that went about 500 feet to straightaway center, the longest ball I've ever seen at that stadium."
Sano is fearless, on the field and off: Though his English is still a major work in progress, he conducts interviews without an interpreter, and in the dugout during games he's the most vocal player on the bench. "He's loud, and you don't want to cross him," Mientkiewicz says. "He was the best motivator we had—but it's more like you're motivated out of fear."
Earlier this year in a game at Fort Myers, Sano hit a grand slam against West Palm Beach; when the two teams met again the following week, the opposing pitcher, apparently not happy with Sano's slow trot around the bases, lasered a fastball at Sano's face. Sano dusted himself off, and two pitches later he ripped a tape-measure home run to left—and barked at the other team's pitching coach, shouting, "They have to learn to respect me."
The Twins haven't had a player hit more than 35 home runs in a season since 1970; Sano is the middle-of-the-order masher the franchise is starving for. Baseball industry insiders already view Sano as the best signing out of the Dominican since Hanley Ramirez went to the Red Sox for $20,000 in 2000. Eight years after Minnesota drafted local boy Joe Mauer with the top overall pick, the Twins found its next franchise-changing player.
And then they found another.
True story: Byron Buxton—back in Baxley, he's known simply as Buck—once scored from second base on a sacrifice fly. It was during a Georgia state high school playoff game last summer. Buxton was on second base, and the batter hit a ball to deep right. The rightfielder fielded it cleanly, and Buxton tagged up at second, ran toward third and—just kept running. He scored standing. "The rightfielder was in such shock, he just kind of flipped the ball into the infield," says Twins scouting director Deron Johnson, who was at the game to see Buxton. "People were just looking around ... confused."
During a game in Fort Myers last month, Buxton laced a ball down the leftfield line that was fielded on three hops. By the time the leftfielder threw the ball into third, Buxton was already sliding in with a triple. "Who else triples on a hit down the leftfield line?" says Johnson. "He goes from first to third as fast as anyone I've ever seen."
The scary thing, and the Twins brass is emphatic on this point, is how raw his skills still are. (He still needs to work on his jumps, for example.) Though Buxton was the most intriguing prospect in baseball's draft last summer, some evaluators didn't see him as a future star. They were looking at the competition he faced in rural Georgia, where he rarely saw fastballs that hit 90 mph or quality breaking balls, and at his modest home run totals. (He hit just two his senior year.) After the Astros passed on him to take shortstop Carlos Correa with the top pick, Buxton fell to the organization that had targeted him since the summer of 2009, when Powell first saw him play as a 15-year-old in a travel-team game. Powell had called Johnson that day to tell him that he had found the player who would be at the top of the Twins' draft board three years hence.
The Astros went down to the wire with their choice—the Twins first heard that Houston was taking Correa 10 minutes before the start of the draft. Houston signed the shortstop out of Puerto Rico for $4.8 million, a below-slot deal, partly so they could afford to sign two other high draft picks to above-slot contracts. Correa, who reminds some of a young Alex Rodriguez, is already regarded as one of the best shortstop prospects in the game, "but no one would argue he's better than Buxton," says one scout. "[Houston's] plan was to get three impact guys instead of one, and I understand that—but when that one guy is another Mike Trout, how do you pass that up?"
Buck and Bocaton: They are the future of the Twins, and they make an unlikely pair. Buxton grew up in a small house, off a dirt road, with "no cellphone service," he says. "If anyone wanted to reach me ... well, they couldn't." He's the soft-talking son of a truck driver and a school cafeteria worker—"he still calls me 'Sir' all the time even though I always tell him I'm not that old," says Mientkiewicz—and remains very much of Appling County. After he agreed to his $6 million signing bonus in June 2012, his splurges were a modest new house for his parents in Baxley, a new truck for his dad, and a new paint job and new tires for his own F-150. His idea of a perfect Saturday afternoon is "cutting grass while listening to some country music," he says. He wakes up each morning at 7:30, without an alarm, and goes to breakfast alone at Denny's. "Always make sure to get a good breakfast in," he says, in his slow Piedmont drawl.
Bocaton—his nickname has stuck with teammates in the U.S.—speaks breathlessly, and he cannot stand to be alone. He grew up impoverished in the suffocating downtown of San Pedro; with his signing bonus he bought a new gated house, just down the road from the old one, for his parents and two siblings. He misses big-city life and the simple things. "Rice and beans," he says. "Good rice and beans."
They grew up in different parts of the world, speak different languages and have never been teammates. They are not yet household names, but already are sensations on the minor league circuit. "The last player to have an impact like this on our team was Joe Mauer," New Britain owner Bill Dowling says of Sano. "You see people stop in the stands when he comes up to the plate, because you don't want to miss what he's going to do next."
In Cedar Rapids this season the club sold out T-shirts with Buxton's name and number 7 in less than a week, and before heading to the park fans would call the front office to make sure he was in the lineup. When he was promoted to Fort Myers, the first batch of Buxton T-shirts lasted three days. The outfielder returned from a recent road trip to find piles of fan mail spilling out of his locker in the home clubhouse. A player shook his head as he walked by and said, "Joe Mauer doesn't get that kind of mail."
It was a few hours before first pitch, and Buxton had begun his pregame ritual of taking 25 swings off a tee and inhaling a bag of Skittles. That night he homered for the second time in three days. The next night he tripled twice. Two days earlier, up north in New Britain, Sano ripped his third homer in four games. It's easy, over stretches like that, to dream about the not-so-distant future, Buck hitting leadoff, Mauer hitting third, Bocaton at cleanup.
The comparisons and the expectations are only going to grow. "It makes me cringe," says Mientkiewicz, who broke into the majors with a wave of top Twins prospects led by outfielder Torii Hunter, the star of Minnesota teams that won four division titles between 2002 and '06. "We forget how hard this game is, and I blame Trout, Harper and Machado for that. What people don't realize is that they aren't the norm—they're the exception. Before them, who was the last guy to make a splash at 19, 20? Ken Griffey Jr.? A-Rod?
"But then you see these two young men in person, you realize everything you've heard about them is true, and you can't help but believe, and dream."
WITH BYRON BUXTON (NO. 1) AND MIGUEL SANO (NO. 3), THE TWINS HAVE A RARITY: TWO TOP FIVE PLAYERS IN BASEBALL AMERICA'S PROSPECT RANKINGS. SINCE BA LAUNCHED ITS LIST IN 1990, ONLY FIVE OTHER TEAMS HAVE HAD TWO POSITION PLAYERS RANKED THAT HIGH AT THE SAME TIME
1994 BLUE JAYS
Alex Gonzalez SS
Carlos Delgado C
Ruben Rivera OF
Derek Jeter SS
Paul Konerko 1B
Adrian Beltre 3B
2004 DEVIL RAYS
B.J. Upton SS
Delmon Young OF
Justin Upton OF
Stephen Drew SS
READY TO JOIN THE FRAY
YASIEL PUIG. ZACK WHEELER. WIL MYERS. THERE HAS BEEN A STEADY STREAM OF IMPACT CALL-UPS THIS SEASON—SO WHO'S NEXT? HERE ARE FIVE PROSPECTS WHO COULD MAKE NOISE IN THE SEPTEMBER RACES ... AND BEYOND
XANDER BOGAERTS, SS/3B, Red Sox
Currently the youngest player in the International League, the 20-year-old is hitting .284/.368/.456 with eight home runs since making the leap to Triple A Pawtucket in June. Bogaerts could be this year's Manny Machado.
ARCHIE BRADLEY, RHP, Diamondbacks
Arizona is fading fast in the NL West, but Bradley, 21, the best pitcher in the minor leagues right now—he has a 2.10 ERA with 100 K's in 103 innings at Double A Mobile—should soon provide a jolt in the desert.
NICK CASTELLANOS, OF, Tigers
Detroit is running away with the AL Central but would be even better with the 21-year-old Castellanos (.278/.351/.438, 13 homers, 64 RBIs at Triple A Toledo) replacing the weak platoon of Andy Dirks and Matt Tuiasosopo in left.
BILLY HAMILTON, OF, Reds
Sliding Billy has struggled at the plate at Triple A Louisville, but with his game-changing speed (he has 69 steals in 106 games after a record 155 last year), he'd still be an intriguing, if one-dimensional, weapon down the stretch.
OSCAR TAVERAS, OF, Cardinals
While it's been a difficult season for St. Louis's injury-plagued top prospect, Taveras, hitting .306/.341/.462 at Triple A Memphis, is talented enough that he could be an immediate impact bat if he recovers from an ankle injury.
For more from Albert Chen on the phenom phenomenon in baseball go to SI.com/mlb