DUNEDIN, FLA. – Byron Buxton batted third while wearing a Twins uniform for the first time Monday. After years of imagining what Buxton will become, Paul Molitor decided to paint a picture with his lineup card, momentarily thrusting Buxton into the position of responsibility to which he has long seemed bound.
“Kirby Puckett hit zero home runs as a rookie and 30 a year or two later,” Molitor said. “Byron’s trending, and we just can’t predict the pace. But the scale might go pretty high.”
Molitor offered the comparison to Puckett without prompting, offering a reminder that Buxton’s fitful rise from Baxley, Ga., to the majors has done little to diminish his promise.
Baxley is a small town but is not compact. The Appling County High School complex sprawls and the Buxton family lives far away from the town center. Trees tower, pine straw litters lawns and a glance in every direction reveals places the locals can, as Buxton says, “act country.”
Buxton eschewed city life this winter, trading in his usual workout routine in Atlanta for an offseason of home cooking. His father, Felton, underwent knee surgery and Byron wanted to be there to help him pass time and convalesce.
“That surgery was tough on him,” Buxton said. “We’re country. We don’t like to sit around too much. We like to be outside, moving around. We had to watch a lot of Wild Westerns.”
Buxton lifted weights, sprinted and hit, and shot hoops with his father before his surgery. He began learning to drive his father’s rig and tried to talk his mother into retiring from her job as a “lunch lady.”
“I told her she doesn’t have to do that anymore,” Buxton said. “But she loves those kids.”
Buxton’s high school career made him one of the most coveted five-tool players in recent draft history. The Twins chose him with the second pick in 2012, right after Houston selected Carlos Correa. Buxton mimicked Mike Trout’s performance in the Class A Midwest League and became the consensus top prospect in baseball before a series of injuries and disappointing performances slowed what appeared to be an inevitable rise to stardom.
This winter offered a reminder that little has changed for Buxton after five years in professional baseball. He’s still a talented kid from a small town eager to prove he can make it in the big time.
“I think the pressure has been alleviated a little bit,” Buxton said. “The confidence that I built up in myself through September has led me to not worry about everything else. Now I just want to try to help this team win, and go out there and enjoy it.”
Last September, fans at Target Field finally got to see the player Buxton was projected to be. Over his final 29 games with the Twins, he hit .287 with a superstar quality 1.011 OPS, six doubles, two triples and nine home runs while covering more territory in the outfield than advertising.
His development has begun to mirror Carlos Gomez’s as well as Puckett’s. All three arrived in the big leagues as speedy center fielders. In each case, the Twins asked them to put the ball in play, and in each case the player blossomed when he began hitting the ball with authority.
In his first 326 big-league at-bats, Buxton hit three home runs. In his past 101 at-bats, he hit nine.
“You’re going to have to fail to learn how to succeed,” he said. “Getting back up there last year was a big turning point for me. To realize that I have to stop thinking about the game and just go out there and have fun.
“I put my mind back to when I was 7 or 8 years old and didn’t care what pitch the pitcher was throwing. I just wanted to hit the ball hard and make diving catches. And September was the best month I’ve had in a while.”
A future leader
Buxton always has been polite and accommodating. This spring, he has become effusive. As he spoke in the Twins clubhouse the other day, Buxton slapped his hands together for emphasis and volunteered anecdotes about his son and parents. He used to quietly answer questions; now he leads the conversation.
“The Twins guys say he’s more vocal and comfortable in his own skin, more of a leader this year,” said Al Goetz, Buxton’s agent. “He’s never really failed at anything he’s done. Most guys who come through high school and the early minor leagues with so much success, you worry about what will happen when they fail because it’s more impactful and it’s so public.
“I never worried about him. I knew he was going to figure it out.”
Goetz, Brian Dozier and Torii Hunter all have said the same thing about Buxton’s development. When a top prospect struggles, everyone in the organization wants to help, leading to a cacophony of advice.
“He tried to listen to all of the different voices and make adjustments to every single one,” Dozier said. “You can’t do that up here. You try to tweak things at-bat to at-bat or between innings and you get lost. I’ve had numerous talks with him about it. He’s trained himself, offensively and defensively. Now he just needs to go play.”
Buxton simplified his thinking about hitting. He spent the winter telling himself to keep his head down, extend his followthrough and use his legs.
He’s hitting .242 (8-for-33) with six doubles, a home run and a stolen base this spring.
Twins General Manager Thad Levine said he and his colleagues used to daydream about Buxton when Levine was with the Texas Rangers.
“We felt that he was a phenomenal athlete coming out of high school, one for the ages, a player you’re going to want to track throughout his career because you thought special things were going to happen,” Levine said. “Then the Twins drafted him, and we continued to evaluate him with the mind-set that he’s the type of player you’re never going to have access to, a team would never think to trade him.
“He has all the makings of a franchise-type player.”
When Levine met Buxton, he marveled at the player’s speed and defensive range. “The thing that surprised me has been his makeup,” Levine said. “You speculate about those types of things, but until you’re around a player you’re not blessed to know the man. I didn’t understand what a quality individual he is. He marries up confidence and humility in an authentic manner that I think has to be a testament to his parents and how he was raised. You see that this guy at some point in his career could wear a [captain’s] C on his chest.”
Buxton wasn’t looking that far ahead this winter. He did his work, spent time with his stern-yet-doting parents, and played ball with his son. Brixton is 3 — “I call it the terrible threes,” Buxton said — and has already made his choice of sports.
“There’s nothing better than having a kid,” Buxton said. “He’s a replica of me. If I pick up a baseball, he picks up his glove. He never wants to hit, always wants to pitch. He dislikes playing with trucks, playdough, crayons. If I put a baseball, football and basketball in front of him, he always picks up the baseball.
“To have him get to an age where I can go outside and play with him, that’s the best part of life, right there.”