ARLINGTON, TEXAS – Doug Mientkiewicz called the Chattanooga Lookouts together in their clubhouse in Birmingham, Ala., on Saturday and said the words that Twins fans have waited to hear for three years:
Byron Buxton, you’re going to the big leagues.
“Everybody just kind of went wild a little bit,” the 21-year-old Buxton said shortly after the initial shock wore off. “When I heard my name, just a lot of joy and happiness went through me.”
Through most of Minnesota, too. And there may have been a shudder of worry throughout the AL Central.
Buxton, the Twins’ most highly prized prospect since Joe Mauer was drafted in 2000, was summoned to the Twins on Saturday, and will make his major league debut Sunday against the Rangers.
Much to even Buxton’s surprise. “I had [no inkling] at all,” he said. “It really caught me by surprise and shock. … I’m just blessed and thankful that I get an opportunity to get called up to the show.”
He has been playing well at Class AA Chattanooga, batting .467 during his current eight-game hitting streak, but Twins manager Paul Molitor said this move is more about circumstance than Buxton’s play. With Aaron Hicks sidelined by a sore elbow (he’s likely headed for the disabled list) and Torii Hunter serving a two-game suspension, a sudden shortage of outfielders prompted the Twins to debut the No. 2 overall pick from the 2012 draft.
“It was just a matter of letting [General Manager Terry Ryan] know that I don’t want to play [shorthanded]. Today, we had one guy on the bench, and it would be the same tomorrow,” Molitor said. “I thought with Aaron’s situation, it was the right time to get us a center fielder here. … He’s been discussed a few times before. Other situations didn’t seem right. This one does, at least to me.”
Molitor wouldn’t say Buxton’s promotion is permanent, or will even last longer than Hicks’ anticipated 15-day stay on the disabled list.
“Everyone hopes Byron comes up and gets his feet cemented and shows he can play at this level and makes it tough to think about having to send him back when we get a bunch of healthy bodies. You just can’t predict that,” he said. “We have a lot of confidence. He’s a gifted young man, but makeup is a big part of what he brings to the table. You expect a young kid down there, he’s an exciting player but he’s still learning how to hit. And up here, they’re going to learn in a hurry what he can and cannot hit. So we’ll see how he adjusts.”
That said, the Twins could use a spark to help them emerge from a slump that reached five consecutive losses, and nine in 12 games, on Saturday. Molitor said he’s leery of that notion, because he understands the scrutiny the Bixley, Ga., native will face.
“We’re hoping he can bring a little bit of something special here, without putting too much pressure on him, because I know everyone out there thinks he’s going to be the next face of the franchise, all those type of things,” Molitor said. “And that’s a lot on a young man who’s just going to come up here and try to get established in the short term.”
For that reason, Molitor said, he probably won’t bat Buxton in his usual leadoff spot right away. Better to ease him in further down in batting order, while he soaks in his surroundings.
But any expectations that he can turn the Twins around on his own, Buxton said, won’t affect him at all. “I’ve got enough pressure on me as it is. I’m not going to put more pressure on myself once I get there,” he said. “Just go out there and play my game. Do the best I can to help us win.”
His game at Chattanooga looks plenty good. He is batting .283 with six home runs, seven doubles and 12 triples this season, not to mention 20 stolen bases in 22 attempts. He’s completely healthy again, after missing most of 2014 due to neck and wrist injuries and a concussion.
“It feels amazing to be healthy, to be able to come in and play this game every day,” Buxton said. “I feel pretty good. [I’ve] been taking better at-bats at the plate, been laying off a few pitches that early in the year, I’d swing at. “[That’s] helped put me in good position to drop the ball in the gap somewhere.”
He knows, however, how much he doesn’t know, and how much of an adjustment he faces, two levels higher than he’s ever played. On the base paths, for instance, “I feel like I’ve gotten a little bit smarter, but I’ve still got a long ways to go,” he said. “I’m a lot more comfortable, especially at first base. I got a lot more comfortable with my lead, and just picking out good times to go.”
And at the plate, where his season began with a 9-for-50 (. 180) first couple of weeks?
“I feel like it’s got a lot better. The past few years, I struck out a lot on stuff in the dirt or I’d swing at stuff over my head. This year, I started out slow, but I’ve got family and teammates and coaches behind me, and they’ve just kept me going through it,” he said.
Now that family will get to see him in a Twins uniform — No. 25, in fact, since the No. 7 he wore in the minors belongs to Mauer, the only player in franchise history drafted higher than Buxton. “I just told them to give me a jersey. I didn’t really care what number I wear,” he said.
Buxton’s parents, his fiancée, his fiancée’s parents and his 1-year-old son, Brixton, will travel to Texas for his debut. The Twins then head to St. Louis before returning home Wednesday for Buxton’s long-awaited Target Field debut.
“I’m think definitely playing in a different environment will help me out mentally, help me get mentally strong,” he said of opening on the road. “Sure, it’ll be great to play at home, but wherever the case is, I’m just happy to be able to get up there and play ball.”