Twins general manager Terry Ryan admitted to calling up Byron Buxton too early last season, saying he regretted promoting the 21-year-old top prospect in June when injuries left Minnesota short-handed in the outfield. Buxton was overmatched in his first taste of the big leagues, hitting .209/.250/.326 with a 44/6 K/BB ratio in 46 games after arriving with the most hype of any Twins prospect since Joe Mauer in 2004.
Because of his poor debut and Ryan’s comments, most Minnesotans went into the offseason assuming Buxton would begin 2016 in the minors. Instead the Twins traded their best in-house center-field option, Aaron Hicks, and brought in no outside alternatives. Buxton arrived at spring training with essentially zero competition and won the starting job by default. He was the Opening Day center fielder at age 22, but three weeks and 17 games later the Twins demoted him back to Triple-A.
Nothing about Buxton’s performance suggested he was ready to thrive in the big leagues, and in fact, aside from flashing excellent range defensively he was pretty much a mess. However, the Twins calling him up “too early” in 2015 only to hand him the 2016 job without any competition and then change their minds 49 plate appearances later showed that Ryan and company are capable of being equally messy. Buxton has struggled and struggled mightily through his first 63 games, but the Twins also didn’t help much and that’s become a player development pattern.
Now he returns to Minnesota, not because the Twins decided Buxton was ready to take the big leagues by storm but because the player who replaced him in center field three weeks into the season, Danny Santana, injured his hamstring and needs a disabled list stint. They could have bypassed Buxton, but without another healthy veteran outfielder on the 40-man roster doing so would have required some tinkering and the Twins may have been fairly close to deciding it was time to give him another opportunity anyway.
Buxton was so painful to watch in his first two Twins stints—hitting .195 with a 36 percent whiff rate—that tales of his strong recent play at Triple-A have been brushed off locally, as if he’s the first prospect to stumble out of the gates. I’ve tried to stress that despite seemingly being The Next Big Thing forever Buxton is still just 22. Not only is Buxton one of the 10 youngest hitters in the American League, he was one of the 10 youngest hitters in the International League. Kirby Puckett, to whom all future Twins center fielders will be compared, was in rookie ball at 22.
Buxton may very well prove to be a bust—or at least a relative bust, since defense alone should make him a valuable major leaguer for the next decade—but it won’t be because he struggled for 175 at-bats in the majors at ages 21 and 22. And it also won’t be because his hype outweighed his actual performance in the minors. Despite several injuries and quick promotions, Buxton has produced at each level. If the Twins had kept him in the minors until now—and really, a debut at age 22 wouldn’t be that late—fans would be foaming at the mouth for his arrival.
Buxton, a former no. 2 overall pick and consensus top-five prospect four seasons running, is a 22-year-old center fielder with jaw-dropping speed who’s hit .304/.385/.500 as a minor leaguer and .355/.417/.586 at Triple-A. That includes .333/.402/.605 since his late-April demotion and .372/.443/.686 this month. He’s been crushing Triple-A, at 22 and as a player whose defense figures to be his biggest strength. Who knows if he’s ready to thrive in the big leagues now, but Buxton’s hype was there for good reason and should remain there for good reason.
Instead he returns to the majors for his third stint with as many skeptics as believers, or at least as many people currently being open about their skepticism. My guess is those same people will be difficult to find once Buxton gets on solid footing in the majors. The opportunity is there for him to take hold of the center field job and never look back, regardless of how quickly Santana comes off the disabled list. Buxton is who the Twins want there for the next decade and Santana has hit .225/.254/.306 since last year while somehow looking even worse defensively.
In what has quickly become a lost season for the Twins, getting Buxton settled in and ready to be a long-term asset is the most important goal for the next four months. He has the ability to be a Gold Glove-caliber center fielder with a top-of-the-order or middle-of-the-order bat and 50-steal speed. And as he’s shown so far, he also has the ability to look lost against big-league pitching. They need to get Buxton comfortable and get him right so that everyone in Minnesota can get past all that’s gone wrong in 2016 and start dreaming on the future again.
There are many different levels of success and failure, but when it comes to prospects too often “bust” is applied to anyone who doesn’t live up to the absolute apex of their perceived potential. A not-insignificant number of people in Minnesota will forever believe that Joe Mauer—with an MVP award, three batting titles, six All-Star games, and 50.9 WARP through age 33—has been a bust. There will no doubt be people who view Buxton the same way unless he develops into a player closely resembling Mike Trout or Andrew McCutchen.
That’s not impossible but it’s also not realistic or at least likely, although “realistic” and “likely” have little room in the amateur prospecting world. Struggling in the majors to the extreme level that Buxton has—small sample or not—puts a dent in his prospect stock, but if he were making his debut now instead of trying and failing twice already Buxton would still be the fifth-youngest center fielder in Twins history. Put your faith in the Twins organization or prospect analysts or professional scouts or numbers—his résumé remains outstanding and his date of birth remains 1993.
Also of some comfort is that very few prospects in baseball history have turned out to be flat-out busts after receiving Buxton-like universal hype, praise, and high rankings for five straight years. It just doesn’t happen, particularly when there are no known off-field issues or reports of a poor work ethic at play. Baseball Prospectus, Baseball America, and MLB.com have all rated Buxton as the no. 1 or no. 2 overall prospect in each of the past three seasons. Maybe he’s destined to be the bust to end all busts, but maybe he just needs some more time to prove everyone right.
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