Hype and hyperbole accompanied Byron Buxton from the day the Twins drafted him in 2012. For some of us who care passionately about baseball, word of The Next Great Prospect comes with as much caution as anticipation. We’ve heard all this before. Can any player, no matter how talented, possibly live up to it all?
Until this week I had never seen Buxton play — not in high school, not in the minors. But I’d read and heard so much about him that I expected the guy to arrive at Target Field on a cloud surrounded by angels. And not the ones who play in Anaheim.
I generally feel the game of identifying “prospects,” encouraged by major league organizations and fueled by Twitter and niche publications, has never been more out of control. Top ten lists. Top 40 lists. Top 100 lists. Guys with as much chance of playing in the major leagues as the big bronze rabbit on Minnehaha Parkway showing up on “prospect” lists, written by people who have never seen them play or even talked to those who have. It’s madness.
The mythology over Buxton, a center fielder and the highest-touted homegrown prospect to rise through the Twins system since Kirby Puckett, reached ridiculous proportions this week when two baseball colleagues — people I like — claimed on Twitter that Buxton threw 98 or 99 mph in high school.
On its face, that’s just silly. If a 17-year-old kid threw a ball that hard, he wouldn’t be drafted as an outfielder. One of them posted a link to a Sports Illustrated story that, on closer examination, made a passing reference to 99 mph without citing a source. Who knows if it was even true?
The point is, we should all be skeptical when hyperbole threatens to overwhelm. Major league organizations, every single one of them, hype and overvalue their prospects. It’s an easy trap to fall into. Teams pump up their own players because it makes them look smart, and everybody gets to keep their jobs. A lot of writers, even conscientious ones, get sucked in. But unless you see the players, who really knows if they’re any good?
As I finished dinner, Manuel brought over his laptop and cued up two videos shot by his guys. In the first, during a workout at the University of Illinois-Chicago, Buxton fielded two-hoppers in center and threw to the plate. His footwork was perfect, his throwing motion effortless, and the ball left his hand like a missle. Even on video, that was impressive.
Then came batting practice the next day at Wrigley Field, before an all-star game. Buxton pulled two balls into the left field bleachers, the first a couple of rows up, the second three-quarters of the way up. Again, impressive. Buxton clearly had remarkable physical tools. If the next game hadn’t started, Manuel and I might still be at the table talking. Manuel could not confirm a 99 mph throw by Buxton. He also said 93 mph wouldn’t surprise him.
“He doesn’t have the raw power like Mike Trout,” Manuel said. “He does it differently. But he has an athleticism that usually only comes out of Latin America.”
Back in Minneapolis the next night, I got my first live look at Buxton in his Target Field debut against St. Louis, when Twins let him meet the media before the game. The press room wasn’t the madhouse I expected — Ron Gardenhire’s firing drew a bigger crowd — but it was still more than normal: half a dozen TV cameras and a couple of dozen reporters.
Buxton, already in uniform, seemed calm and mature. His most telling answer came to a question about big-league pitching compared to Class AA, where he came from. “Quite a difference, especially off-speed, breaking pitches,” he said. “I’m not used to seeing such sharp break as much as I did in Chattanooga. Just got to get used to it and adjust to how they pitch me.”
Wednesday night, a late-arriving Target Field crowd applauded Buxton warmly in introductions and again in his first at-bat. (The Twins announced a paid crowd of 34,381, but the number on hand appeared closer to 25,000, with a good portion in Cardinals red.) Buxton flashed his speed twice. In the top of the third he ran down a ball in left-center by the left-handed hitting Matt Carpenter, a tough play with the ball naturally slicing away from him. Then he nearly beat out a slow roller to third. Buxton struck out his final two at-bats, once swinging awkwardly at, yes, a breaking pitch, and once looking.
The jump from Class AA to the bigs can be painful. Buxton is struggling at the plate, going 2-for-16 (.125) with one triple. How long he sticks around remains to be seen. But Bryant and the Cubs come in this weekend, making Target Field ground zero for anyone interested in baseball’s most promising talent.
But it’s worth remembering: Promise guarantees nothing.
In 1996 the Yankees promoted an outfielder named Ruben Rivera who shared Buxton’s ability and potential, but his maturity left something to be desired. Rivera wrecked his right shoulder making a needless throw from right field after the Yankees clinched the AL East. Traded to San Diego for Hideki Irabu, he never blossomed. The Yankees gave Rivera a second chance in 2002, which he ruined by stealing a glove and bat from Derek Jeter’s locker and selling them to a sports memorabilia dealer. The Yankees couldn’t release him fast enough. A year later he was done in the majors, a career .216 hitter, potential unfulfilled.
Which is not to say Buxton is Rivera. I can’t tell you whether Buxton is going to be an all-star, a dependable regular, or a bust. But the thing is, neither can anyone else. It’s up to him. And we’re all going to find out together. For passionate baseball people, that’s the fun part.