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Why Twins' Buxton is poised for greatness

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Byron Buxton strolls into the Minnesota Twins dugout and surveys the playing field at Hammond Stadium.

It's a little more than an hour after sunrise, and the centerpiece of the team's spring training complex is immaculate and quiet. The air is crisp and comfortable, but the humidity of southwest Florida will check in for duty shortly.

"It's real nice here," says the 22-year-old center fielder. "Not too hot, not too cold. In about 30 more minutes, it's gonna be hot."

Buxton is just talking about the weather, but maybe the observation also works as a metaphor for the next 12 months or even the next 12 years of his career. That's because he's one of the most gifted athletes in baseball and is widely considered one of the top three prospects in the sport for the third consecutive year.

Buxton is projected to do tremendous things, and the future might be now for the Georgia native who draws comparisons to Los Angeles Angels star Mike Trout. Buxton is well positioned to make the Twins' Opening Day roster for the first time, and if he does, the baseball world will pay close attention to the results.

Just as a cool morning melts into a sticky afternoon, careful optimism is evolving into lofty expectations.

Sure, it's gonna be hot, but Buxton and the Twins firmly believe he can stand the heat and eventually turn up the temperature on opposing pitchers.

"The pressure to me is not really pressure at all," Buxton said. "It just drives me to be even better. I go out there and play the game the right way. I respect it, and I give it my all. I wanna be that role model that hustles out ground balls. I wanna be the guy that dives for balls and takes away base hits."

The scouting report on Buxton is downright ridiculous.

He possesses a mix of elite speed, throwing ability and range that could enable him to become one of the top defensive players in the majors. In the areas of hitting and power, he's rated in a slightly lower orbit -- although still well above average.

Also absurd are some of the athletic feats Buxton performed as a high schooler, exploits that would make almost anyone this side of Bo Jackson blush.

He played outfield and batted .594 with 10 home runs as a junior at Appling County High. He hit .513 with 38 stolen bases as a senior. He had a fastball that touched 97 mph, so he pitched part time, too -- going 10-1 with 154 strikeouts in 81 innings as a senior. Although he fanned 18 in seven innings to win the decisive game of the 2012 Class 2A Georgia state championship series, he never intended to become a pitcher.

"I wanna play in the field," Buxton said. "I wanna hit. I don't wanna pitch every five days. I've gotta play every day. Besides, you'd rather hit a home run than give up one."

"One thing that I really have noticed is that he wants to be great. He's putting in a lot of work."
Joe Mauer on teammate Byron Buxton

Buxton played quarterback, wide receiver, free safety and punter in high school and once threw a football more than 80 yards in practice. He was prepared to play both baseball and football at the University of Georgia -- until the Twins drafted him No. 2 overall in 2012 and presented him with a $6 million signing bonus.

"He's got a high ceiling, that's for sure," said Twins first baseman Joe Mauer, who similarly faced high expectations after being drafted No. 1 overall out of high school in 2001. "He can run. He can throw. He's got pop in his bat. He can do really anything you ask him to do on a baseball field. He's got a lot of potential, and I see why everybody is so excited about him.

"One thing that I really have noticed is that he wants to be great. He's putting in a lot of work."

Said Twins hitting coach Tom Brunansky: "Whenever he takes the field, he possesses the ability to amaze. I'm not just talking about doing it with his bat. It could be with his glove. It could be with his arm. It could be with his legs. That's the great thing about this game. You think you might have seen everything, but then there's some player that just drops your jaw."

Almost as extraordinary as Buxton's rare physical gifts are his demeanor and character.

Buxton isn't a privileged athlete who believes he's entitled to whatever he wants just for showing up, and he hasn't been enabled into any sense of superiority. Instead, he's amazingly humble, courteous and respectful. Anyone who meets him notices almost immediately.

If Buxton is putting on an act, the performance is worthy of an Oscar.

He grew up in Graham, Georgia, a rural town of approximately 300 residents located in the southeast portion of the state. It's situated 10 miles west of Baxley, a city of 4,500, where he was born and attended high school. Everybody pretty much knows everybody in Graham, and they definitely know Byron. If they weren't regulars at the large Buxton family gatherings after church on Sundays, they've certainly seen the roadside sign that heralds Graham as his hometown.

One of the first things Buxton did with his bonus money was purchase a bigger home in Baxley for his parents, Carrie and Felton. Carrie works at a school, and Felton is a truck driver. Together, they firmly instilled in Byron character traits that confirmed to the Twins he was the right fit for their franchise.

"Everybody can scout his running speed and his throwing arm and watch him take batting practice and play the game," Minnesota general manager Terry Ryan said. "Usually the guys who separate themselves are the guys that have the character. So we did our work. He has been raised correctly. He's got respect for the game of baseball. He respects the people in the front office. He respects the media. He respects the fans. There's no question the kid is made up right."

Buxton's wife, Lindsey, also attended Appling County High, and the couple has a 2-year-old son, Brixton. Being a father requires a different set of responsibilities than most players his age, but he cherishes being able to have Brix see him play in person as often as possible.

"He's got respect for the game of baseball. He respects the people in the front office. He respects the media. He respects the fans. There's no question the kid is made up right." Twins general manager Terry Ryan on Buxton

"It definitely changes your perspective to where you not only have to provide for yourself, but you've got to provide for your wife and kid," Buxton said. "It's just an amazing feeling to be able to go home knowing that no matter what the outcome is, your little boy will be happy."

Buxton speaks much more freely than he did when he was drafted. He was very quiet then, and Ryan recalls the 18-year-old being somewhat overwhelmed by the scope of his introductory news conference at Target Field. But with each passing year, Buxton has become more outgoing. He seems to be relatively at ease with the myriad requests placed on him by media and fans these days, but it definitely doesn't appear to be going to his head.

"He's not a guy who I believe wants to be a star for the recognition," said Twins manager Paul Molitor, a Hall of Famer who was drafted No. 3 overall in 1977. "He wants to be a good player because we know he can be, and he's using his gifts the best way he can."

Said Ryan: "He's turning into a man right in front of our eyes."

Before becoming a Twins coach in 2014 and the team's manager last year, Molitor was a minor league instructor for the organization and became familiar with Buxton. But Molitor got to know Buxton even better in January when they spent four days on a trip across northern Minnesota during the Twins Winter Caravan promotional tour. The manager got to see Buxton handle a stream of fan adulation firsthand and notice his growth as a person.

Molitor also introduced Buxton to curling in Bemidji and got him to reluctantly walk atop a sheet of ice in Detroit Lakes.

"We got him out on the frozen lake," Molitor said. "And you've never seen a man that fast walk that slow."

Brunansky, himself a first-round pick in 1978, describes Buxton's humility as "old school" and says it reminds him of how his peers carried themselves when he was playing in the 1980s and '90s. Add it all up and you get a player who probably will feel comfortable in a powder blue Twins throwback jersey -- but won't be showing up a pitcher with a bat flip anytime soon.

"I want to be the guy that is respectful to everybody," Buxton said. "You treat people the way you want to be treated. You've got a lot of people looking up to you, and you don't wanna let them down or your teammates or your family. We're very blessed to have the opportunity to come out and play this game every day as a job."

Buxton was hastily promoted to the Twins from Double-A last season to fortify an outfield depleted by injuries.

Few players are able to jump to the majors and immediately succeed, and Buxton, despite his prodigious talent, wasn't one of them. He was three years removed from high school with only one injury-free professional season under his belt, and he struggled, posting a .209/.250/.326 line over 46 games in two stints with the Twins, interrupted by a thumb injury and a brief return to the minors.

"I rushed him last year," Ryan said. "That's unfair. I had to bring him up, because we were in a bad situation. We lost a couple outfielders about the same time. There was no doubt he was gonna struggle last year. He did struggle, and then he got hurt. Then he did well against Triple-A competition, which was encouraging. We got him back up in Minnesota, and he started showing the signs."

So while Buxton's underwhelming debut wasn't surprising, the questions remain the same this spring, although perhaps more urgent: Is he ready for the majors? If so, how good can he be?

ESPN Insider Keith Law ranks Buxton second among the top 100 prospects of 2016 and sums up his career situation thusly: "Buxton has the physical gifts to be a star even if he hits .240, as that would probably come with 50 steals, 10-12 homers and big defensive contributions. However, it's no longer quite the lock it appeared to be that he makes enough contact to get to that threshold."

Let's get back to that Mike Trout comparison.

At first glance, the link might seem forced. Both players are listed at 6 feet 2, but Trout outweighs Buxton 235-190. Still, the talent level of the two is so rare that there aren't many other players who can inspire a legitimate correlation.

Ryan notes the physical contrast between Buxton and Trout but also points to many things they have in common. Both players were first-round picks who signed out of high school. Both have gaudy scouting grades across the board. Both emerged with breakout seasons at Cedar Rapids in the Class-A Midwest League -- Trout went .362/.454/.526 in 2010; Buxton went .341/.431/.559 in 2013.

"Our guy is long and lean, and Mike looks more like a fullback," Ryan said. "But they both have similar skillsets. You can use your imagination on Byron Buxton all you want, just like people did with Mike Trout."

The most telling similarity between Buxton and Trout, however, might be the initial difficulty each had in acclimating to major league pitching.

Trout went .220/.281/.390 in 40 games with the Angels in 2011, performing somewhat better than Buxton did in Minnesota last season. The Angels decided to start Trout in Triple-A in 2012, and a torrid start earned him a promotion in less than a month. Four seasons later, he's a four-time All-Star who won the 2014 AL MVP award and finished second in MVP voting the other three times.

That's not to say Buxton is poised to roll out of bed winning Silver Slugger awards. But Trout provides recent precedent for a top prospect who followed up a disappointing debut with consistent success as soon as the following season.

The bat is typically the last thing to come around for young major leaguers. There's no proven formula to speed the process. Buxton needs repetitions and opportunities. That's the only way he will develop the pitch recognition to resist chasing balls out of the zone, avoid taking called third strikes and ultimately improve his walk-strikeout ratio.

"We're gonna be patient with him. The hard question for us here is, 'How little offensively does he have to do now to help us?' " Molitor said. "You've got to go through X amount of at-bats before you start to understand what you need to think, what you need to look for, what you need to protect against -- just finding ways to put the ball in play."

Said Mauer: "Guys figure it out at different times, but he's gonna figure it out, and he's gonna be here for a long time. So I hope everybody is a little patient and lets him develop the way he needs to."

The Twins don't care how Buxton goes about getting on base -- a walk, solid single up the middle, beating out an infield grounder or successfully laying down a drag bunt. They just want to make sure he's wreaking havoc on the basepaths with his speed.

Molitor points to Buxton's high baseball acumen, dedication and previous success in jumping from one level to another. Brunansky mentions Buxton's ability to quickly incorporate adjustments into his swing. Ryan sees how much Buxton has matured in the past four years.

So while the Twins are careful not to place unnecessary pressure on their budding star, it's difficult for them not to imagine how amazing Buxton might be someday. Molitor won't make any guarantees, but he will say this: "Knowing him a little bit, I'm comfortable to say he's got a really good chance of reaching [his potential]."

That explains why logo baseballs bearing Buxton's name and jersey number, 25, are sold alongside ones with Mauer's name and number, 7, in the Twins team store this spring at Hammond Stadium.

One player has appeared in all of 46 games for Minnesota. The other is entering the sixth season of an eight-year, $184 million contract and has earned six All-Star berths and an MVP award in his 12 seasons with the club. But to hear Mauer tell it, the juxtaposition makes perfect sense.

"I think he can be as good as anybody in the game," Mauer said. "He's that talented."