June 15, 2015
The situation: The surprising Minnesota Twins sit near the top of the American League Central despite a recent five-game losing streak and middling offensive production. What better remedy to cure those offensive woes then the best prospect in baseball, Sir Byron Buxton?
Background: Buxton wasn’t an unknown quantity by any stretch of the imagination, but the outfielder from Appling County, Georgia burst onto the scene with an outstanding performance at the East Coast Pro Showcase and Under-Armour All-American Game in Chicago in the summer of 2011. Some concerns over his performance against mediocre competition during his senior season, along with bonus demands and the emergence of Carlos Correa, dropped him to the second overall selection, though he was considered the consensus top talent on the board in 2012. That “drop” has been the Twins gain. Outside of an injury-marred 2014 campaign, Buxton has done nothing but impress; ranking at the top of not only the Twins’ top-ten list, but as the top prospect in baseball for the last two years running.
Scouting Report: Webster’s Dictionary defines a five-tool player as—okay Webster’s doesn’t actually have a definition of a five-tool player, but if it were to have a definition of a five-tool prospect, it could just be a picture of Buxton.
At the plate, Buxton has lightning quick (and strong) wrists that allow him to get through the zone as fast as any prospect in baseball. This, along with excellent balance, plus pitch recognition skills and the ability to get extension to hit the ball the other way, gives him a chance for a plus-plus hit tool when all is said and done. He’s a smart and patient hitter who isn’t afraid to wait for his pitch and will draw more than his fair share of walks. Though that patience can sometimes put him into two-strike counts, and because he doesn’t “shorten up” in those situations, he will put up his fair share of strikeouts as well.
Once Buxton reaches base, be prepared to see an awful lot of pickoff attempts as the outfielder possesses elite speed, an easy 80 on the 20-80 scouting scale. His ability to read pitchers has seen significant improvement, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone if he ended up as a perennial stolen base leader in the American League—assuming he can get on base enough to run.
While the hit tool is more advanced, Buxton’s power is still being tapped into, though he’s far from a slap-hitter at the plate right now. The swing is fairly flat, but Buxton has vastly improved his ability to transfer his weight. The combination of that and his plus bat speed gives Buxton at least a potential above-average power tool. His wheels also give him a chance to turn singles into doubles, and doubles into triples, so that always helps the ol’ slugging percentage as well.
As good as Buxton is offensively, he’s even better with the glove. That easy 80 speed is capable of getting to everything and anything in centerfield. The arm strength is also outstanding, though he has lost a few ticks off the “heater” since he entered the system. Even still the combination of plus-plus defense with a 60 to 65 arm gives him a chance to be among the best defenders in baseball, and he’ll save the Twins contact-heavy pitching staff runs immediately.
Immediate Big League Future: It’s reasonable to expect Buxton to go through his lulls as he gets acclimated to the majors, but his ability to provide value on the bases and in the outfield means he can make an impact even without putting up spectacular numbers at the plate over the next few months. That being said, the talent is immense, and if it’s possible for a 21 year-old to show five tools at the big league level, it’s Mike Trout, but Byron Buxton isn’t far behind. No one should be surprised if Buxton is among the best players in baseball as soon as 2017. —Christopher Crawford
Fantasy Impact: Hide your children, hide your neighbors. Here he is: the guy who, from a fantasy perspective, could produce more value on an at-bat by at-bat basis than any of this year’s call ups—and, yes, this includes uber-prospect and professional eye model Kris Bryant. This point is certainly debatable, as Bret Sayre pointed out in this winter’s dynasty league prospect rankings, but the fact that the debate even exists after what Bryant has done so far in 2015 tells you all you need to know about Buxton’s potential as well as his ceiling.
Unlike recent call-up Carlos Correa, Buxton’s minor league numbers weren’t ridiculously dominant, but the 21-year-old outfielder more than held his own at Double-A, swatting six home runs with a .283/.351/.489 slash line in 268 plate appearances. The most impressive part of Buxton’s line—and the part that will have to translate to the majors in order for him to have a chance to maintain that high-end fantasy profile—are the 20 stolen bases (against only two unsuccessful attempts).
The Twins’ hand was forced here, not only by the subpar performance of a revolving door of outfielders that didn’t perform, but also by their surprising status as a midseason contender. Buxton certainly deserves the promotion on merit and potential, but if the Twins were floundering, as they have the past few years, it is less likely that they would have promoted Buxton and started the service time clock in order to try and push a 75 win team to 78-80 wins.
The high level of expectations for Buxton in the short-term is 10 home runs and 30 stolen bases with a solid-if-not-spectacular batting average and the potential to be a two-category stud thanks to the number of runs that Buxton is capable of scoring thanks to his speed. The difference between older prospects like Bryant and younger prospects like Buxton and Correa must be emphasized here: typically, it is more likely for younger prospects to face a steeper learning curve and a longer adjustment period than the older prospect. Mike Trout in 2011 is the tired example who gets waved in everyone’s faces time and time again by the fantasy wags: if even Trout struggled in his initial big league exposure, any prospect could struggle right out of the gate. All of this should not discourage fantasy owners from plugging Buxton into their lineups immediately, but it is a sobering reminder that there could be some bad times to go along with the good times.
Another minor caveat to consider is that Buxton is filling one of the deepest positions in fantasy baseball, particularly in standard mixed leagues. The replacement level shortstop in 12-team formats is a much poorer fantasy asset than the replacement level outfielder, in other words. Buxton is going to provide value, but if the power doesn’t come right away, he isn’t going to be much more than an OF4 in 12-team mixers.
But enough talk of Buxton’s downside. Promotions of this nature don’t come along because teams are hoping that the talent eventually matches the production. Buxton’s all around numbers were getting better this year, particularly some of the secondary indicators that are strong markers of future success. His ISO cracked 200 for the first time since 2013 in A-ball. His strikeout rate of below 20 percent is strong in this era of the high-strikeout hitter. His batting average in Double-A looks unimpressive at a glance, but Buxton wasn’t doing his work in a PCL-driven hitters’ haven. Buxton’s wheels are going allow him to play up to a stronger batting average and defy some of the BABIP-driven expectations. There is a good possibility that Buxton’s .283 batting average mostly translates to the majors, and a .260-.270 batting average with Buxton’s speed profile will play up to a solid if not strong fantasy value proposition.
In most leagues, Buxton is already locked up and the question of whether or not he is worth a significant FAAB bid or a high priority waiver claim is moot. If you are in a league that prohibits mid-season pickups of minor leaguers, and Buxton wasn’t drafted, you have to make the big splash with your FAAB and bid at least $40-50. The potential for Buxton to add immediate impact to your team is undeniable, and isn’t something that can be provided by nearly any other free agent, regardless of your league’s depth or format. —Mike Gianella
Christopher Crawford is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Follow @CVCrawfordBP