CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — As soon as the ball left the bat, there was no way anyone was going to catch it.
In the top of the third inning Monday at Veterans Memorial Stadium, Kane County shortstop David Bote’s fly ball rocketed toward the gap between left fielder D.J. Williams and center fielder Byron Buxton. Neither Cedar Rapids outfielder, it seemed, had a chance.
Then, like a comic book superhero, Buxton chased the ball down, flying through the air and stretching his glove out to snag the ball before sliding head first on the warning track and popping up with the ball in his glove. It was among the more difficult catches for an outfielder to make as the ball tailed away from him. Yet Buxton made it look easy, almost effortless.
That’s the way it’s been for Minnesota’s highly touted prospect during his first season with the Kernels. Almost everything Buxton does seems to come easy to him. He runs with a sprinter’s speed, yet seems to glide across the turf with his long strides. His swing appears natural, as if he was born with it. When his bat connects with the ball, the sound is pure.
It’s easy to see that the Minnesota Twins have a star in the making.
“He’s one of those guys who’s hard to take your eyes off,” said Hall of Famer Paul Molitor, who serves as a roaming minor league instructor for the Twins. “Because you’re not sure how he’s going to influence the game — with his bat or with his legs or with his defense or with his arm.”
Monday against Kane County, Buxton impacted the game both at the plate and in the field. His diving catch in left-center field — which was the No. 2 play that night on SportsCenter’s Top 10 — robbed the Cougars of an extra-base hit. Meanwhile, Buxton went 3 for 4 with a three-run double, and a triple to right-center that never even reached the warning track.
There’s something special about this kid — and at 19, he’s certainly still a kid. With the numbers he’s been putting up in the Midwest League, though, Buxton appears to be a man among boys. Through Wednesday, he’s batting .346 with seven home runs, eight triples and 15 doubles to go along with 49 RBI and 26 stolen bases. He ranks in the top five in just about every offensive category and exhibits all five tools on any given night.
“The tools are phenomenal,” Kernels manager Jake Mauer said. “His mental makeup is very solid. When you’ve got ability and you’ve got the mental makeup and the willingness to work and want to get better, that’s when you can become pretty dangerous.”
If any of Buxton’s five tools rank above the rest, it’s his speed. Even as a first grader running track and field in rural Georgia, Buxton knew he was faster than his peers.
There may be players on the Kernels who are quicker than Buxton, Mauer said, but you’d be hard pressed to find one faster. When asked about Buxton’s speed and how it compares with players he’s seen over the years, Molitor mentioned Willie Wilson, who once stole 83 bases in a season for the Kansas City Royals, and multi-sport athlete Bo Jackson.
Now it’s a matter of harnessing that top-end speed and fully utilizing it on the basepaths. While Buxton has swiped those 26 bases, he’s also been caught 11 times.
“He can field. He can really run,” Twins general manager Terry Ryan said. “Now, can he steal a base yet? He’s been thrown out. With that type of speed, there’s raw speed and there’s baseball speed. Right now he’s got raw speed.”
It’s still raw, but Buxton’s speed helps him make the tough defensive plays look easy. The catch he made to rob Bote wouldn’t be chased down by most outfielders.
Buxton’s triple later in the game was yet another example of how easy his speed looks. The ball was hit to right-center and cut off by the center fielder before it reached the warning track. Even so, Buxton had no trouble rounding the bases and sliding into third in a little more than 10 seconds.
“He covers a lot of ground in the outfield,” Mauer said. “He’s starting to learn he can impact the game in a lot of different ways.”
Far from home
Buxton hails from the rural town of Baxley, Ga., about 3½ hours southeast of Atlanta. When the Twins drafted Buxton last June, he had trouble getting cell phone service to dial into a conference call with Twin Cities media.
For a teenager from such a small town, Cedar Rapids must feel like it’s on the other side of the world. Buxton insists, though, that he’s settled into life away from home and has found a new home in Iowa.
Like all minor leaguers at this level, he stays with a host family. Mark and Michelle Hocraffer have hosted Buxton during his few months in Cedar Rapids. They’ll take him out to eat some nights. Other nights, they’ll cook dinner at home and enjoy a few laughs as they enjoy the company of the budding star.
“You know you’ve always got somebody you can go talk to besides baseball,” Buxton said.
Buxton’s father came to visit recently. Otherwise, Buxton’s family is more than 1,000 miles away, but he has a second family with the Kernels. He cites the team’s chemistry as a big reason for their first-half success — they clinched a playoff berth with a win Wednesday over Quad Cities.
While Buxton is clearly the team’s brightest star, he blends in with his teammates off the field despite his soft-spoken demeanor. In fact, Mauer likened Buxton’s personality to a current superstar: Jake’s brother, Joe. Buxton even shares the same No. 7 with the Twins star catcher.
“Their personalities are very similar,” Jake Mauer said. “They go about their business the same way. They’re one of the first ones here and last ones to leave, all that stuff. Around their teammates, you probably see a little more of their personality come out a little bit more. When they go on the field, they mean business.”
Star on the rise
Business for Buxton — and, consequently, the Kernels — has been good so far. Cedar Rapids had eight players named to the Midwest League All-Star Game, led by Buxton. Fans have made the four-hour drive south from the Twin Cities to Cedar Rapids to watch Buxton. His No. 7 T-shirt jersey is the only one sold in the Kernels’ pro shop, and a handful have already been spotted at Target Field in Minneapolis.
At the rate he’s going, it’s only a matter of days before Buxton is promoted to High-A Fort Myers, Fla. After the MWL All-Star Game. it might be a flight to Florida for Buxton. Still, he could benefit from a few more games in Low-A now that pitchers have started to adjust how they attack him.
As for a major league debut, that still remains a few years off. The Twins have historically been patient with moving players through the system, especially those drafted out of high school. It’s not often players jump a level on their way to the majors. Even Joe Mauer, the No. 1 overall pick out of St. Paul (Minn.) Cretin-Derham Hall in 2001, made stops — albeit brief, in some cases — at every level of the minors.
Buxton could likely follow a similar path.
“It’s always dangerous to go too fast. The Twins are always cautious,” Molitor said. “I’d be very surprised if he skips a level along the way. Potentially Double-A to the big leagues is one that could possibly happen. … As strong of makeup as this kid has and the ability, he will definitely be a fast-track case in my mind. How fast, we’ll see.”
Then again, if there’s anyone who does things fast, it’s Buxton. Whether or not he’s on the fast track to the majors, though, is something Buxton doesn’t worry much about. He’s just trying to enjoy life as a 19-year-old kid.
“If I get called up, then I get called up,” Buxton said. “If I don’t, I’m still going to work hard here, still try to win a championship for Cedar Rapids.”
Whether Buxton is winning a championship for the Kernels or trying to help Fort Myers win a title, chances are good that there will be plenty of eyes on the five-tool outfielder. As he continues to climb the ladder through the minors, the stages will become a bit bigger, the lights a bit brighter.
“You hear a lot of hype about a lot of people, and not always does the career back up that hype,” Molitor said. “But hopefully this will be one of those cases where we’ll see it really come to fruition and maybe surpass everybody’s expectations.”