ALEXANDRIA, MINN. – Byron Buxton is remarkably candid about it: He’s not ready. He is barely 22, has appeared in only 46 big-league games and fears he would feel overwhelmed by expectations if the Twins handed him too much too soon this spring.
Nope, there’s no way he is prepared to move into Torii Hunter’s spacious corner locker in Fort Myers next month.
“I hope it’s not me,” Buxton said Monday, his first day traveling northern Minnesota as part of the Twins Winter Caravan. “That spot’s a pressure point.”
Clubhouse real estate aside, though, the Twins’ top prospect is optimistic about his chances of making the team in spring training and seizing the starting job in center field, a role forecast for him since the day he was drafted second overall in 2012.
“I worked hard this offseason, probably harder than I worked the past three,” Buxton said after signing dozens of autographs for an overflow crowd of Twins fans in a Holiday Inn banquet room. “I feel I’ve just got to go out there, prove myself and go take it.”
Plenty of Minnesotans hope he is up to it, perhaps his manager most of all. The Twins traded Aaron Hicks to the Yankees in November, clearing the way, ready or not, for the Buxton Era. Paul Molitor knows his job gets a lot easier, and the Twins’ fortunes probably a lot brighter, if the speedy Buxton begins to fulfill the superstar-in-waiting future so many have projected for him.
With Hicks gone, after all, there is no surefire Plan B.
“It will make things a lot smoother if he’s the guy. Because if he’s not, it’s going to be interchanging parts and it might not look too pretty, at least at the start,” Molitor said. “So I’m hoping that works out. It would be the best-case scenario if Byron Buxton is ready to be our center fielder.”
In retrospect, he wasn’t last June, when the Twins, facing a manpower shortage in the outfield, summoned Buxton from Class AA Chattanooga. Buxton went 2-for-24 to open his career, injured his thumb less than two weeks after arriving and finished the season batting only .209 with a .250 on-base percentage in 46 major league games.
But Molitor was impressed by Buxton’s intelligence and his ability to diagnose and address his shortcomings, and the manager is optimistic that the proper adjustments will be made.
“He knows what areas are holding him back — anxiousness, strike-zone recognition, maybe trying to do too much on a given day to live up to the hype,” Molitor said. “He sees the game, what works and what doesn’t, and he’s always been able to make those changes.”
Buxton has been trying to make those changes this winter, working out nearly every day near his Georgia home, both in the batting cage and in the outfield.
“It’s kind of tough because you don’t have major league guys throwing to you,” he said, but he found an amateur pitcher with a low-90s fastball to give him the next-best thing.
He has a part-time tutor, too — Buxton is in contact with the now-retired Hunter several times a week, he said, and once even set up a remote camera so his now-retired former teammate could offer tips.
His emphasis, Buxton said, is on becoming more aggressive at the plate — and more patient, too.
“Patient as in, picking out good pitches to hit. And also be more aggressive on first-pitch fastballs, get-me-over breaking balls,” Buxton said. “It’s tough. At the end [of the season], it kind of clicked for me a little bit, so I’m just trying to bring that back.”
Plenty of time for that in camp, though. This week, he is traveling through northern Minnesota with Molitor, reliever Casey Fien and broadcaster Dick Bremer, making 13 stops in four frigid days to meet fans and promote the team.
The presence of such a notable phenom, not to mention the team’s turnaround season last year after four lousy ones, likely explains the much larger crowds that greeted the caravan Monday. More than twice as many fans showed up for the lunchtime program in Alexandria as a year ago, for instance.