CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa—When the idea first popped into a scout's head, it seemed preposterous.
Just two years after he dominated the Midwest League for Cedar Rapids, Mike Trout produced one of the best rookie seasons in baseball history. So how is it possible that there's a guy in the same league–in the same city–who is … (looks around to see if anyone is within earshot) . . . better?
It seems crazy to compare anyone to a player who just produced one of the greatest age 20 seasons ever. But scouts who have seen Cedar Rapids center fielder Byron Buxton this spring are no longer wondering whether he's the best prospect in baseball. They are wondering how the Twins farmhand–the Kernels switched affiliations from the Angels to the Twins this season–compares to the best prospects they've ever seen.
"I am positive he's the best prospect I've seen in (more than a decade) of full-time scouting," a pro scout for a National League club said. "It's not even close. Tools, athleticism, feel and vision. Time will tell what kind of major league player he becomes, but the sky is the limit."
Another scout, referencing the 2-to-8 scouting scale, said (somewhat) jokingly two days into five days of watching Buxton: "What don't I throw an 8 on?"
A third pro scout has seen Midwest League stars come and go for more than a decade. In his eyes, Buxton's hitting approach is better than Trout's was when he was in the league. He hedges a bit, saying that he doesn't know if Buxton will develop as Trout has, but says strictly based on MWL performance, Buxton has been better.
"Joe Mauer, Prince Fielder, Albert Pujols, that's the grouping I have him in as far as pure hitting approach," said the scout, who saw all three of those future big league stars come through the MWL.
The amazing thing about Buxton's season isn't that he's good. As the No. 2 overall pick in last year's draft out of a Georgia high school, everyone knew he was really good. When scouts have seen Buxton this year, what surprised them was his aptitude and his hitting approach. Even if you expected to see a player who can run and hit for power, how does a 19-year-old just a year out of high school learn how to grind out at-bats like he's Joey Votto?
"I was expecting to see a raw tools guy who flashes brilliance. That's what a normal 19-year-old from a small town does in the Midwest League. That's not him," an NL scout said.
The speed wasn't surprising.
Oh, it's special. The way Buxton glides from first to third with massive, fluid strides, he seems to eat up 90 feet in just a few steps. And scouts love that they get 4.0-4.1-second times consistently when he's running from home to first, without ever seeing him jog one out. But before Buxton arrived in Cedar Rapids, everyone knew he could run.
The arm wasn't surprising.
It's the same arm that struck out 18 batters in the deciding game of the Georgia 2-A state championship series last year, as Buxton fired 92-93 mph fastballs.
The power wasn't surprising.
Buxton has a whippy bat thanks to his excellent bat speed. He's skinny with plenty of muscle definition, but not a whole lot of bulk. The biceps aren't that big. His chest isn't the chest of a power hitter. He's a teenager who looks like a teenager. But because of his bat speed he can drive the ball to all fields, and when he really connects, the ball carries. He has present power, and scouts expect he'll have significantly more as he fills out and matures.
The defense wasn't even surprising, though it has been better than expected.
Buxton's speed allows him to cover plenty of ground, and he pairs it with good jumps, good technique and excellent routes to makes the gaps just a rumor for opposing hitters. Scouts saw it in high school, but to see him make Gold Glove-caliber plays in pro ball is that much more impressive.
But the hitting. Who could have imagined this?
Buxton is just a year removed from playing 2-A high school baseball in Georgia, where he saw few 90 mph fastballs and even fewer quality breaking balls. Twins scouting director Deron Johnson saw Buxton six times last spring and said he never saw him face a pitcher with professional potential. And when he first arrived in pro ball, it showed.
Buxton went 1-for-27 to start his pro career in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League last year. Two weeks into his pro career, he was hitting .037 with no extra-base hits. He looked like a kid from south Georgia over his head in his first taste of pro competition.
But what Buxton has shown already is that he is a fast learner. After going hitless in seven of his first eight games, Buxton had at least one hit in 18 of his final 21 in the GCL and jumped to Rookie-level Elizabethton, where he helped lead the E-Twins to an Appalachian League title. And between summers, Buxton showed that he had caught up to and passed his contemporaries.
"You saw the stuff. In instructs, you saw he had great aptitude. He really took off. This year in spring training, he was absolutely ready. He's been doing this since more than just April," Twins vice president of player personnel Mike Radcliff said.
This year, Buxton's longest hitless streak is two games, and he quickly proved he was ahead of the pitchers in the Midwest League. At the time of his promotion to the high Class A Florida State League, he ranked in the top five in the MWL in batting, on-base percentage and slugging percentage and virtually every other offensive category. The only significant categories where he didn't rank in the top five were home runs and doubles.
"He's not afraid of hitting with two strikes," Cedar Rapids hitting coach Tommy Watkins said.
Buxton's approach and hitting ability make him standout from the other prospects who combine power and speed. Those players are always intriguing. But the players who combine power, speed and hitting ability at a young age? Well, that's a much smaller and more elite group.
If Trout was a once a generation talent, how is it possible that Cedar Rapids ended up just three years later with another center fielder who belongs in the same discussion?
It's an easy joke to make to ask if the people of Cedar Rapids have been living right. A lot of solid big leaguers have come through Iowa's second-largest city, but diehard fans have to recall Eric Davis' 15 home runs and 53 steals in 1982 to remember the last player before Trout who dazzled them with similar speed and power. Getting a talent like Trout or Davis once a decade or so seems reasonable. Twice in four seasons? Preposterous.
But Cedar Rapids definitely is living right when it comes to its baseball team. The Kernels have a booster club that sponsors picnics and other activities for the players and supplies gift cards so the players can eat properly on the road.
Cedar Rapids isn't the only team that provides host families its players, but how many cities have waiting lists for host families? And how many send people to spring training to talk to the players personally, to make sure they match the right player with the right family? Allergic to cats? Well, these families won't work for you. Latin American? The Kernels will try to match you up with a family that speaks Spanish.
It matters to the players, more than you may expect. Yes, some of the Kernels will grow up to be big league stars, but when they are Cedar Rapids, they are 18-, 19- and 20-year-old kids often in their first full year of life on the road. So a little stability, an opportunity to have a place to stay rent free and a little taste of home life is a godsend.
Twins middle infielder Alexi Casilla played in Cedar Rapids in 2005 as an Angels farmhand before he was traded to the Twins. In 2008, the Twins told Casilla he was headed to Cedar Rapids for a rehab assignment with the Beloit Snappers. They gave him the name of the hotel where he'd stay, but Casilla told the team he didn't need a hotel. If he was headed back to Cedar Rapids, he'd stay with the family that took him in back in 2005. He has since come back to Cedar Rapids on an off day to catch a Kernels game and spend some time with his host family–a quick 275-mile jaunt down the road.
A Second Chance
Being blessed with Buxton just a few years after Trout has helped the Kernels in other ways as well. When Trout left town, the Kernels' front office realized it may have missed an opportunity. The mantra in the minors is that you don't market the players, you market the team, the experience and the promotions. IN part that's because most minor league players are not well known, and also because the minor league team can't control how long the player will be around.
But after Trout was promoted out of Cedar Rapids, Kernels general manager Doug Nelson (who was then the assistant GM) kept hearing from fans disappointed that they hadn't come out to see Trout play before he left town.
"When Trout was here, normally we promote the team and we do not single out individual players," Nelson said. "We realized we missed out on an opportunity to promote him in the community."
So when Buxton arrived, and quickly showed that he was worthy of a trip to the park, the club started promoting him and his teammates in local radio spots.
"We heard a lot of fans say, 'Boy, I wish I saw Mike Trout,' " Nelson said. "We told fans, don't make the same mistake you made with Trout. Come out and see them before they're promoted."
Even with two more rainouts than last year, attendance was up about 5 percent over 2012, thanks in part to the Buxton effect.
The Kernels also ordered a batch of 48 Kernels t-shirts with Buxton's name and No. 7 on the back, marketing an active player for the first time in recent memory. The first shipment sold out in a week, and the second shipment of 72 shirts didn't last much longer. Between online orders and sales at the park, the Kernels had to order more every couple of weeks.
"We thought we'd see what happened, but it's such an overwhelming response," Nelson said.
Who Would You Take?
Beyond comparing Trout and Buxton, scouts in the Midwest League had the opportunity this season to revisit the top of the 2012 draft and ask the question: Knowing what we know now, would you rather have Buxton, or the Astros' draft haul of No. 1 pick Carlos Correa, as well as supplemental first-rounder Lance McCullers Jr. and second-rounder Rio Ruiz?
The Astros decided in 2012 to spread their draft budget over multiple players. So they signed Correa to a below-slot deal, then used the savings to sign McCullers and Ruiz to above-slot contracts. All three are now at Quad Cities. Correa is already considered one of the best shortstop prospects in the game. McCullers has showcased his excellent arm in the Midwest League, and Ruiz has shown flashes of his excellent potential at the plate.
Still, a survey of scouts who have seen all four indicates that one Buxton is better than the trio of Correa, Ruiz and McCullers, as a majority would take him over the Astros' trio.
"Come on. It's not even close," an NL scouts said. "As I look at it, even if you had the plan to try to get three impact guys instead of one, the minute you walk into Buxton's game, you have to scrap that plan and say, 'We're going with this guy.' "
That opinion is not universal, however.
"Awesome as Buxton has been, I think you have to take the Astros' trio," an AL scouting executive said. "Especially because you might be getting another stud premium position player in Correa, who is still a little bit younger than Buxton. If this deal was on the table, I honestly don't know who would say no first. Any way you slice it, the fact that we're talking about trading three guys, one of whom went 1-1 last year, for a 19-year old in low-A ball is pretty insane."
Like A Pro
It's a kids run the bases/autograph day at Cedar Rapids' park. When the game is over, kids file down to the field to experience what infield dirt feels like under their sneakers. Just beyond the base scampering in shallow right field, the line begins.
Want an autograph of potential future big leaguers like Adam Brett Walker, Jorge Polanco or Niko Goodrum? You can walk right up, get an autograph and have a conversation. No waiting.
Want an autograph of Buxton? Join a hundred or more fans in line. You could get the autograph of each and every other Kernels player in less time than it will take to get Buxton's signature. The fans don't care, though; they want to meet and greet the future star.
Buxton signs t-shirts. He signs scraps of paper and Kernels programs. Two tween girls walk up and remove their right tennis shoes, then hand them to Buxton to sign while they hop on one foot. After he signs, they thank him and then slide the shoes back on, walking away with extra pep in their steps. He also signs pristine baseballs that are quickly placed in protective acrylic cases, likely to appear on eBay in either the near or distant future.
It's not the most enjoyable part of the pro baseball player's life. But Buxton engages the fans, gives them a smile, makes a little small talk. The rest of his team, with nothing left to do, heads to the clubhouse while Buxton still has dozens of fans still in line. He keeps on signing. Finally the Kernels make an announcement that the field needs to be cleared so the grounds crew can do its work. Buxton is finally free to head in. He smiles as he signs his last item. He may be a 19-year-old, but he shows he understands what it is to be a professional baseball player.
The Twins had high hopes for Buxton's first year, but they didn't think he'd be this advanced. Minnesota is an organization that would generally rather hold a prospect at a level a little longer than necessary than push him too fast. When Aaron Hicks was in the minors, Minnesota kept him in Class A for more than 300 games before he was deemed ready to move up to Double-A.
Buxton has already scrapped any similar plans for the Twins. In a half-season at Cedar Rapids, he more than proved he was ready to go to high Class A. With the way he's progressing, life in the minors will move quicker for him than the average prospect.
"We've run guys through there all year. Paul Molitor for baserunning. All of the scouts that go through. Tom Kelly went through there," Radcliff said. "All of them come out of there raving about not his bat speed, or his speed or his arm, but how great a kid he is. He listens, learns, processes and applies it two minutes later.
"It's the ability to process things, the aptitude. It goes from showing him how to do something to taking it to the game the next day. It was the same with Joe (Mauer). You told him something once, and it was in there the next day. With minor league players, it's all about repetition. That's how they learn. But you don't need much repetition with guys like this."
At this point it's reasonable to expect Buxton to open the 2014 season in Double-A. From there, a good performance could mean a late-season callup or an Opening Day 2015 arrival in Minnesota.
"As we sit here today, no reason to think a fast track isn't possible," Radcliff said. "He's surpassed all the expectations we had. He's passed with flying colors so far."
|How Does Buxton Compare?|
|Here's a look at the top position prospects to come through the Midwest League since 2000.|
|2002||Joe Mauer||Quad Cities||19||411||58||124||23||1||4||62||0||61||42||.302||.393||.392|
|2006||Justin Upton||South Bend||18||438||71||115||28||1||12||66||15||52||96||.263||.343||.413|
|2010||Mike Trout||Cedar Rapids||18||312||76||113||19||7||6||39||45||46||52||.362||.454||.526|
|2011||Oscar Taveras||Quad Cities||19||308||52||119||27||5||8||62||1||32||52||.386||.444||.584|
|2013||Byron Buxton||Cedar Rapids||19||270||68||92||15||10||8||55||32||44||56||.341||.431||.559|