The headliner at Twins instructs was their recent first rounder, the second overall pick from a rural south Georgia high school, center fielder Byron Buxton. He was considered the top prospect in the draft by most scouts on the strength of his prodigious toolset, compared most often to Matt Kemp and the Upton brothers. Buxton signed for $6 million, just below slot recommendation for the pick and will be 19 all of the next year in his full-season debut, very likely with Beloit in the Low-A Midwest League.
The thing that sets Buxton apart from other top prospects is his athleticism and the easiness of his actions. The first time I saw him take batting practice, it was hard to believe how much more fluid his actions were and how quickly he made them, even compared to the other top draft prospects I had seen the weeks before, including top 10 picks like Albert Almora and Mike Zunino. That said, Buxton doesn’t have huge current raw power (45 on the 20-80 scale) and while his athleticism allows you to round up with somewhat limited physical projection left, I can’t go higher than 55 on the projected raw power. His approach at the plate and his mechanics are not geared for power, so I’ve got Buxton pegged as an average game power guy at maturity, but he’s young and raw enough to beat that projection.
One tool that Buxton’s quick-twitchiness shows up in now is his speed. Scouts tend to use the term “off the charts” too liberally considering the chart was designed to cover everyone, but Buxton, like Reds prospect Billy Hamilton, can regularly put up times that aren’t on the scale most teams use. 4.3 seconds from the right-handed batter’s box to first is considered average (50 on the 20-80 scale), 4.2 seconds is 60, 4.1 is 70 and 4.0 is 80, the top of the scale. I’ve clocked Buxton in the 3.9s from the righty box on multiple occasions on digs and got two 4.03s in on instructs game on routine ground balls where Buxton didn’t look like he was even exerting himself. Buxton also has an excellent first step and acceleration, normally the downfall of speedsters with some size, a sign that they will slowly lose it as they age. It’s rare to find an 80 runner with any kind of other skills, so you can see why scouts get so excited about Buxton, a 90 runner with a chance for above average power.
Buxton has filled out his frame from the beginning of his high school season, now standing roughly 6’2 and 190 pounds, with long limbs, a tapered frame and some projection remaining. Gaining more body control over his growing frame could be to blame with some of his mechanical inconsistencies at the plate, Buxton’s one main weakness. The easiest way to spot issues with Buxton’s balance is to look at his back foot at contact with the ball, as it is normally off the ground, something hulk of a man Frank Thomas made famous, but Buxton isn’t quite as strong as The Big Hurt.
Buxton’s foot ends up in the air because he shifts his weight too aggressively, stiffens his legs and gets slightly more upright in his posture while his backside slowly collapses. This can affect his bat path at times, making it more of an uppercut but the whole chain reaction is fixable with time; it’s just an issue of syncing his motions and correcting a few small things. When it comes to making adjustments, scouts love to already be working with a good athlete who is responsive to coaching, so almost everyone feels that Buxton will have no trouble cleaning his swing up with professional instruction.
Buxton can be a little rough to watch in games now, particularly against advanced competition, since this swing issue in combination with sometimes spotty pitch recognition can make him look overmatched. Using the three inputs to grading the hit tool from previous articles, Buxton is more than fine when it comes to hitting tools with outrageous bat speed, a contact approach and a loose cut. He shows some feel for the bat head but I think that’s being held back some by his mechanics, plan at the plate and plate discipline.
The Twins have moved him back in the box to give him more time to make a decision on pitches and he didn’t chase any pitches well out of the zone in instructs. He would seem to be guessing what pitch was coming at times, hyper aggressive against anything close at times and borderline passive at others. He lunged at a borderline pitch away with two strikes and hit a flyball in one at bat, along with a pop up and two groundballs in one game, showing that he could hold his own when overmatched but has work to do to polish his offensive game. I think his walk rates will be fine at maturity, but he’ll probably always strike out at an above average rate. That isn’t a big ding on his potential, but without fixing his mechanics and getting a better plan, he may not reach the big leagues.
Buxton still has a few other things to work on at the plate, like integrating power into his swing and hitting the ball with authority to the opposite field, but making consistent hard contact is the first thing to take care of. Power will come later in his development as the maxim suggests and he’ll likely learn it more easily when his body is done developing and his swing is already sound.
Defensively, Buxton doesn’t have much to worry about as his speed forgives a multitude of sins, including occasionally shoddy routes and reads, normal for young players. Buxton also has a strong arm with a smooth release and solid accuracy that I graded as a 65, but some have hung a 70 or even 80 on it. Buxton touched the upper 90’s in his senior high school season but was around 90-92 mph when I saw him.
There isn’t much that Buxton can’t do and the rosiest projections have him as a .290 hitter with 25-30 homers, 50+ steals, and Gold Glove defense with a cannon arm. That said, the most enthusiastic amateur projections have a way of regressing to Earth after players experience some struggles in profession ball. I see Buxton making the necessary adjustments to tap into plenty of his potential and hitting in the .270s with a solid-average walk rate, 15-20 homers, as many steals as he feels are worth the risk and plus defense. That’s in the B.J. Upton area—a slight letdown from Buxton’s potential but certainly a successful big leaguer. Upton’s 23 WAR in his cost-controlled seasons would be a great start to a career and an even greater value for the Twins in exchange for a $6 million bonus.
Kiley McDaniel has worked as an executive and scout, most recently for the Atlanta Braves, also for the New York Yankees, Baltimore Orioles and Pittsburgh Pirates. He's written for ESPN, Fox Sports and Baseball Prospectus. Follow him on twitter.