Ron Gardenhire had heard about Byron Buxton’s potential and was impressed when he met the teenage outfielder. But when one of the best talent evaluators the Twins manager knows offered his assessment, that caught Gardenhire’s attention.
“Tom Kelly said [Buxton] was the fastest baserunner he’s ever seen, and that shocked me because TK’s seen a lot of baserunners,” Gardenhire said of his predecessor as Twins manager. “We’ve seen a lot of people who can really run in that game, so for him to make that statement, I thought that was pretty cool.”
There were a lot of aspects that were cool, and even historic, about Buxton’s season. And on Wednesday, the 19-year-old Georgian received one of the highest honors a player at his level can: He was named Minor League Player of the Year by Baseball America.
It’s a recognition that was once bestowed on Frank Thomas, Manny Ramirez, Derek Jeter and, exactly a decade ago, on the only other Twin to be so honored: Joe Mauer.
“We couldn’t be more proud of the kid,” General Manager Terry Ryan said. “Hopefully, that’ll be a springboard to the next level, and he’ll do well in the [Arizona] Fall League, and ultimately do some of those things up here.”
That’s the No. 1 question for a minor leaguer, of course, and Buxton said in an interview with the magazine that he is “biting my lip right now [to] see what I can do to get up to the big leagues. … I’ll put in all the work I can, get the experience I need, get my at-bats, and see what happens.”
Buxton batted a combined .334 at two levels of Class A ball, Cedar Rapids and Fort Myers, stole 55 bases, had 18 triples and 12 homers, and impressed scouts with his plate discipline. He even helped both those teams reach the postseason.
It’s an all-around game that Baseball America editor John Manuel said puts Buxton in the class of superstar youngsters such as Mike Trout and Bryce Harper — “He’s in that realm,” Manuel said — and one that even the Twins weren’t certain he could achieve this quickly.
“I don’t think in my wildest dreams I would have thought he’d reach Fort Myers this year,” Ryan said. “What I saw last year, in the Gulf Coast League and at Elizabethton, he didn’t put up the numbers he put up this year. I saw him in the Gulf Coast League, and it was a struggle, just after we signed him [last July]. He was a little rusty.”
The 19-year-old from Baxley, Ga., taken with the second pick in the 2012 draft, is a quick learner, however, and after only 2½ months at Cedar Rapids, he was ready, the Twins decided, to move up a level.
“It was a little bit of the base-running — jumps, reads, ability to steal a bag at will. Some of it was handling breaking balls, which you’re always concerned about with young hitters,” Ryan said. “Hitting the ball to the opposite field with authority — he started to do all that stuff.”
And he adapted well to the step up in opposition.
“Pitchers in Cedar Rapids tend to leave the ball over the middle a little bit more, but once you get to Fort Myers, they spot up. Instead of having one pitch, they have an offspeed pitch to get out of jams,” Buxton said. “So you have to focus and try to work hard to improve and be disciplined at the plate.”
He did that so well, and kept playing spectacular defense in center field, that the Twins took the unusual step of assigning him to the Arizona Fall League next month, before his 20th birthday.
“It was a surprise. I wasn’t expecting to go this year, but things worked out,” Buxton said. “I just want to put in my work, have fun, and try to help my team win.”
When will that team be the Twins?
“He’ll dictate how fast he moves, just like this year,” Ryan said. “Next year, we’ll see exactly how he wants to progress. If he moves along, we aren’t going to hold him back.”