Byron Buxton entered spring training as the likely starting center fielder for the Minnesota Twins in 2016, but it wasn't a guarantee. After all, Buxton struggled in his 138 plate appearances with the Twins in 2015, hitting .209/.250/.326 with 44 strikeouts and just six walks, a rookie clearly overmatched in his first stint in the majors.
Still, the job was his to lose. Nick Nelson of Twins Daily writes on Buxton's spring so far:
The grip has only tightened in the week since that post. John noted at the time that Buxton had started four of the first six games in center; he has started on four of six days since, and the player spelling him has been Max Kepler instead of Danny Santana.
That's a very positive sign for Buck, since Kepler is a likely early cut. Santana, who stood to be Buxton's primary competition in center, is clearly being groomed for a utility role. In the past week he has appeared in all three outfield spots and both middle infield spots.
It's becoming plain to see that the Twins entered this camp intent on bringing Buxton north. And while you might not be wowed by his overall Grapefruit numbers (his .200 average and .561 OPS are almost identical to the marks he posted in Minnesota last year), he's showing the type of progress that reinforces this approach.
On Sunday, Buxton had perhaps his best game yet this spring. He doubled and walked, and scored both times. He had a good day on the base paths, including a heads-up tag on a fly ball.
That sort of stuff is all the Twins are looking for right now from their 22-year-old top prospect. It appears the collective assessment is that Buxton's best plan for learning to hit MLB pitching is to face MLB pitching.
While Buxton has been one of the game's top three prospects ever since his big season in the Midwest League in 2013, he's only played 13 games above Double-A. Still, it's not like the Twins have another obvious option in center field after trading Aaron Hicks in the offseason. Santana was just as bad at the plate as Buxton last year and not nearly as good defensively. Kepler needs more seasoning in the minors as well. If Buxton is as talented as the scouts keep saying, I say challenge him.
Look, the Twins are going to be hard-pressed to repeat some of the good fortune of 2015. But the best chance for them to do that and to possibly contend for a playoff spot is to get more production from the young guys in the lineup: A full season from Miguel Sano, a better OBP from Eddie Rosario, and for Buxton to make a significant improvement. That may not happen for Buxton right away, but the Twins should play him and find out if it will happen.