GLENDALE, ARIZ. – Where others see talent, Byron Buxton notices flaws. Where outsiders judge him the best, Buxton seeks improvement. Where scouts marvel at the breadth of his ability, Buxton is frustrated that it’s not deeper.
“I see the pitches I didn’t hit, the [fly] balls I didn’t get to. Bad jumps, getting fooled by pitches, bad throws,” said Buxton, grading himself far more harshly than the observers who named him the top prospect in minor league baseball. So what does he plan to improve upon this offseason? “I’d say everything. I can be better at everything.”
With that sort of mentality showing in Buxton, the Twins decided to send him to suburban Phoenix for six weeks, offering him a spot in the Arizona Fall League that rarely goes to position players with only one full season behind them. Buxton has less experience than the other two Twins hitters joining him in Arizona — Eddie Rosario and Max Kepler, each of whom has been in the Twins system for four years — but the 19-year-old gets most of the attention.
“He’s adapted to everything we’ve put in front of him, so OK, here’s another big challenge for you,” Twins General Manager Terry Ryan said of the team’s top draft pick from 2012. “These pitchers know how to pitch a little bit more than what [Buxton has] seen so far. They’re experienced. Let’s see how you deal with that.”
One hang-up: a strained shoulder
The Twins didn’t get to see as much as they had hoped; Buxton strained his right shoulder on a check swing just a week after arriving in Glendale — “First time in my life I’ve ever been in the trainer’s room,” he said — then “tweaked” the injury shortly after his return while sliding head-first into second base on a successful steal attempt, causing the Twins to end his fall league experience early. It meant Buxton played in only 12 games, but the Twins said they saw the same thing from Buxton that he has done at every stop: failure initially, then a gradual and noticeable mastery of his surroundings.
Buxton is like a sponge, said Mike Radcliff, Twins vice president for player personnel. “He looks like he’s in pretty deep right at first, but he starts soaking in the pitching, getting used to what they’re doing, taking good at-bats,” Radcliff said. “And pretty soon, he’s passed them.”
The Twins would have liked to see how far Buxton would have gotten in Arizona, where he was batting leadoff or third for the Glendale Desert Dogs, with another dozen games or so of seeing headed-for-the-majors pitching. He batted just .212, albeit with three home runs, but was showing signs of improvement, especially in his patience at the plate; he virtually always takes the first pitch of an at-bat, to gauge the pitching he’s facing.. “He makes good adjustments, that’s what you like to see,” Radcliff said.
And his slow start at the plate didn’t affect the rest of his game. Buxton has made a specialty of going from first to third in record time on a hit, and his defense delights Desert Dogs manager Jeff Smith, who likely will coach Buxton at Class AA New Britain next summer. “One thing I’ve noticed is how many balls he’s cut off in the outfield. The gaps are tiny with him out there — he’s holding line drives to singles,” Smith said. “You do that, you set up so many double plays for your defense.”
New tests for Rosario, Kepler
When Glendale turned double plays, they usually involved Rosario and Kepler, the latter of whom is learning a new position in Arizona. Kepler, a German who signed when he was 16 and will turn 21 in February, projects as a corner outfielder, but he’s played 27 games at first, too. When the Desert Dogs’ roster lacked a first baseman, the Twins agreed to use this month to train him in the infield, a task that hasn’t gone as smoothly as they hoped. Kepler has made three errors, and a handful of other misplays, including missing a catch that ended up costing Glendale a game.
“He’s getting better, but it’s new. It’s tough to just throw a guy in there, have him deal with the speed of the game, but he works hard at it,” Smith said.
Besides, Kepler is in Arizona mostly to get at-bats, after his 2013 season began two months late because of an elbow injury, one that affected him even when he returned to action. “It was always in the back of my mind. I think I played a little cautious, because I was worried about my elbow,” Kepler said.
That Kepler has batted .250 and even hit five doubles in 17 games has encouraged the Twins. “He’s seeing good pitching, day in and day out, and that’s an adjustment, too. Every pitcher he sees is [among] the best he’s ever faced,” Smith said, since Kepler has yet to advance to high Class A. “But he’s starting to catch up to some pitches. He’s really going to benefit from this month.”
So is Rosario, whose offseason schedule won’t end when the Desert Dogs are done. He’s planning to play left field in Puerto Rico for a few weeks, “because I want to keep playing. I don’t want to stop,” he said. He plans to report early to Fort Myers for spring training, because his ambition is big: “My goal is to get to the major leagues. Next year,” he said.
Maybe he’ll make it. Scouts have been impressed with Rosario’s speed, and he’s cut down on strikeouts here. His power hasn’t shown up, with just one extra-base hit in 17 games, but Smith said he’s simply had some bad luck, hitting the ball hard but at fielders. His play in the infield has been uneven — he failed to pursue a catchable pop-up last week, then made a diving stop to turn a double play two innings later — but Smith has used him in the outfield, too.
“It’s not hard to switch. You just have to watch the little things,” Rosario said. “Always running hard, making sure you’re in the right spot for cutoffs, positioning. Those little things make a difference.”
Everyone is using the Arizona experience to work on the little things. Buxton, for instance, realized all the attention he’s attracted would require him to do more interviews, a problem for a soft-spoken rural Georgian who had trouble giving more than one-word answers the night he was drafted.