A PERIODIC LOOK AT SOME OF THE MOST INTRIGUING RISING STARS
THIS SHOULD TELL you a little something about how last summer went for baseball's best prospect: Byron Buxton's fondest memories are not from the diamond but from an irrigation ditch. Buxton—the 21-year-old centerfielder who has been called a baseball prodigy, the savior of the Twins and the Next Mike Trout—spent more time wielding a fishing pole than a baseball bat in 2014, when a slew of hard-luck injuries turned what should have been a breakout year into a lost season. After mornings in rehab at Minnesota's minor league complex in Fort Myers, Fla., he would get into his red pickup, drive a few miles, park along the side of a roadway and find a suitable spot next to an irrigation ditch where he'd pursue catfish until the sun set.
Often Buxton's fishing partner was fellow Twins prospect Miguel Sano, a third baseman whose season was cut short with an elbow injury and who was also looking for ways to while away the hours. "One day Miguel showed up with four buckets, and I was like, What is all that for?" recalls Buxton, an experienced angler from rural Baxley, Ga. "And Miguel went out and caught 35 fish! Man, I'll never forget that day." Buxton adds, "Of course, we'd have had a lot more fun if we were healthy and at the ballpark."
It speaks volumes about Buxton's gifts that he is still regarded as the best minor leaguer in the game by most analysts, even though it's possible he collected more catfish than plate appearances (137) last season. Buxton is ranked No. 1 by Baseball Prospectus and MLB.com and No. 2 by Baseball America thanks to his five-tool skills: He can hit to all fields like Kirby Puckett; possesses the arm of Russell Wilson (Buxton, who flashed a 98 mph fastball at Appling County High, was also a star quarterback who once—there are witnesses—launched a football 80 yards in a practice); is nearly as fast as Bo Jackson (just ask the scouts who have timed him at 3.9 seconds down the first base line); and covers the outfield with the grace of a Juilliard dancer.
And now, after a year in which he suffered a wrist injury, a concussion and a dislocated finger, the most enthralling prospect since Trout arrived with the Angels in 2011 is ready to take off. Buxton will start out at Double A Chattanooga but should be in the Show by summer's end. "Our expectations for him have been sky-high since the day we drafted him," says Twins scouting director Deron Johnson, "and he's exceeded all of them."
"Last year was tough, of course," Buxton says, "but I worked hard to get back to 100 percent, and I'm ready for this season. I've never been more ready."
WHEN HE WAS picked No. 2 overall by the Twins in 2012, Buxton was an 18-year-old who looked like he might not be allowed into his senior prom without proper I.D. He's grown 1½ inches since and has added 15 pounds, all muscle, to fill out his 6'3", 200-pound frame. "I feel the strongest I've felt since I was drafted," Buxton says in his slow Southern drawl.
By now everyone with the Twins knows the legend of Byron Buxton: That he put up video game numbers (a .513 average, 17 doubles and 38 steals in 39 games) his senior year at Appling High. That he was Baseball America's 2012 High School Player of the Year. That he was so fast that he reached base on routine two-hoppers to shortstop and stole bases on pitchouts. That Jack Powell, the Minnesota scout who signed Buxton, gave him an 80—the highest grade possible—on every skill except power, and that he has only given one other player such high marks in his 37 years of evaluating players: Josh Hamilton.
Last spring Buxton was coming off a 2013 season in which he dominated the Class A Midwest and Florida State leagues and was named Baseball America's Minor League Player of the Year after hitting .334/.424/.520 with 49 extra-base hits and 55 stolen bases. But a few weeks into spring training, he sprained his left wrist while attempting a diving catch during a minor league game. He returned to the field five weeks later, at high Class A Fort Myers, but five games later he slid into third and reinjured the wrist. In August he was sent to Double A New Britain (Conn.), but logged just three at bats before colliding with a teammate while running down a ball in the outfield. Buxton left the field on a stretcher, was rushed to a hospital and escaped with just a season-ending concussion. He was back on the field at the Arizona Fall League in November, but suffered a dislocated finger.
"Just a lot of bad luck," Buxton says on a spring training morning at the Twins' complex. He grew up three hours southeast of Atlanta in a house off a dirt road and remains a country boy—his idea of a well-spent Saturday is cutting grass while listening to country music on his headphones—and tends to put everything into simple terms: "Just got to hope for the best and work as hard as you can."
Buxton has only 204 games on his minor league résumé, so 2015 is far from a make-or-break year. And yet there is a sense that this is the season for him to take a big step forward. "You hear about the Next Big Thing all the time," says 39-year-old Twins outfielder Torii Hunter, "but this kid is the real deal. I expect big things from him, and I expect him to be doing those big things in Minnesota this year."
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After impressing the front office at four different levels in 2014—he hit .231 in a 39-at-bat cup of coffee in the majors—Pompey, 22, is being counted on to replace Colby Rasmus in CF.
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