The Kernels' season opener against Beloit will be broadcast live on KCRG 9.2 on Thursday night. The game starts at 6:35 p.m. CST.
CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa - The legend of Byron Buxton began when he five years old. In an odd sort of way.
Not having enough players for his recreational softball team, Felton Buxton decided it prudent to put his son out in right field. The youngster handled himself pretty well, with the exception of one play.
"I got hit in the head with the ball," Byron Buxton remembered. "A flyball. I missed it."
The 19-year-old Cedar Rapids Kernels center fielder hasn't missed much since. He amazed the locals in tiny Baxley, Ga., population 4,400, with his multi-sport prowess at Appling County High School: able to dunk a basketball, throw touchdown passes and hit long home runs.
He agreed to play football (wide receiver) and baseball at the University of Georgia, but his pure physical tools made baseball scouts salivate and he kept rocketing up the 2012 Major League Baseball draft charts. Considered by most experts to be the top player available, he "fell" to the Minnesota Twins at No. 2 overall after the Houston Astros selected Puerto Rican high school shortstop Carlos Correa first, in part because of a lower signing bonus demand.
The Twins signed Buxton for $6 million and here he is, less than a year removed from high school, already in low-A ball. He's the highest draft pick ever to play in Cedar Rapids, tied with former big-league shortstop Kurt Stillwell, a 1983 Cedar Rapids Red.
In a neat twist, Correa also will be a Midwest Leaguer this summer, assigned to play at Quad Cities. Should be fun watching those two go head to head.
"Tools wise, (Buxton) is as advertised. There's no doubt about it," said Kernels Manager Jake Mauer, whose team begins the Midwest League season Thursday night at home against Beloit (6:35 opening pitch on KCRG-9.2). "He's a quiet young man, works hard. He's got a confidence about himself, which, I believe, is going to make him successful. The way he carries himself, the way he interracts with his teammates. He seems to be a very driven person."
"I'm just glad I got the opportunity to get here," said a polite and reserved Buxton. "I'm hoping to accomplish a lot of good things this season. Obviously move up in the farm system. Just go out and have fun, do my best and let my performance (do the talking)."
At 6-foot-2 and 190 pounds, Buxton can run (3.9 seconds to first base from the right side of the plate), throw and play outstanding defense. He has "blazing bat speed" as well, according to Baseball America.
The only one of the five tools that might be in some question is power, though he's got plenty of time to develop there. He hit five home runs in 165 Rookie-league at-bats last season.
"He's a baseball player. Fun to watch," said Kernels hitting coach Tommy Watkins. "You watch a game where he doesn't get hits, he's still fun to watch because you see something special in there. I'm excited to see him play under the lights. Looking forward to Thursday. If he's in the lineup. I don't know."
Oh, he'll be in the starting lineup almost every day. Mauer said the plan is to expose Buxton to a little left and right field this season as well.
Buxton said he thinks his game is reminiscent of Atlanta Braves center fielder B.J. Upton. Playing in Cedar Rapids, comparing him to Los Angeles Angels Mike Trout is obvious.
Trout played a smattering of games with the Kernels in 2009 and 81 more in 2010 en route to big-league stardom. Watkins was the hitting coach at Beloit of the MWL in 2010 and remembers being awed by Trout's ability.
Like Trout, Buxton also seems to have the work ethic needed to be a star. He drove three and a half hours to Atlanta multiple times a week in the offseason to work with a personal trainer.
"Every time I saw Trout play, it was like 'Man, this guy is electric,'" Watkins said. "Buxton is the same way. Every time he comes to the plate, something special could happen."