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'D'-Listers: Twins' Buxton best in center field

Top prospect already drawing comparisons to nine-time Gold Glover
February 24, 2014

As a couple of soon-to-be Hall of Famers once said, "Chicks dig the long ball," and in that spirit, elite offensive prospects garner most of the praise.

Though multi-home run games and double-digit hitting streaks are a good way to become A-list celebrities in this corner of the Internet, there's also plenty of love for Minor Leaguers on defense. Realizing that we have an entire season's worth of compliments to heap on the Minors' best hitters, we thought this a fitting time to acknowledge the Minors' best fielders.

With that in mind, we're happy to bring you the 'D'-Listers -- baseball's run-preventing stars of the future. In recent weeks, we've highlighted the best young catchers and shortstops in the Minors. We continue with center fielders, headlined by a promising Georgian who's taken the prospect scene by storm.

The Stud: Byron Buxton, Twins

In 1995, Doug Mientkiewicz was drafted and signed by the Twins out of Florida State University. His first professional assignment was to Class A Advanced Fort Myers of the Florida State League. There, the first baseman got a firsthand look at 19-year-old Torii Hunter, an outstanding athlete who would go on to win nine consecutive Gold Gloves from 2001-09.

Last summer, Mientkiewicz returned to Fort Myers to manage the Miracle. In looking out at Hammond Stadium's center field, he couldn't help but be struck by déjà vu. Like 18 years prior, Mientkiewicz was wowed by a 19-year-old center fielder with robust talents and a preternatural nose for the ball.

Though it's no certainty that uber-prospect Byron Buxton is destined to win a decade's worth of Gold Gloves, it's easy to say his defensive talents in center are second to none in the Minor Leagues.

"I played with Torii Hunter at 19," Mientkiewicz said. "Right now, [Buxton is] head and shoulders above where Torii was at 19; and Torii turned into a pretty good player, a Hall of Famer to me."

Buxton's defensive talents have limited company. His speed is an elite tool -- not far behind that of the Reds' Billy Hamilton -- and he pairs it with an excellent arm, good instincts and a tenacious desire to glove every fly ball hit in a three-zip code radius of center field.

"He plays with a reckless abandon out there," Mientkiewicz said. "He's fearless."

Outstanding as he is, there's still room for Buxton to improve. Now 20, the second overall pick in the 2012 Draft can get extraordinary jumps on balls, a knack that pairs with his speed to generate outstanding range. The consistency of those reads can improve, though -- something that should develop through repetition.

"His jumps can get better, can be better than what they are," Mientkiewicz said. "But when you can fly like he can fly, he can make up for those."

Buxton is likely headed to Double-A New Britain to start 2014 and, depending on how he hits, could reach the Majors by September. When he gets there, he'll immediately become one of the game's best defensive center fielders.

"I think defensively you could put him [in the Majors] right now," Mientkiewicz said. "As far as what I foresee for him, I think he's a year-in, year-out Gold Glove winner in center field."

Mr. MLB-Ready: Billy Hamilton, Reds

Even before last season, Louisville Bats skipper Jim Riggleman was of the opinion that if someone can play a decent shortstop, transitioning to center field is a feasible task. Despite 30 years of coaching experience -- including stints managing the Padres, Cubs, Mariners and Nationals -- Riggleman was pleasantly surprised by how easily Billy Hamilton took to the transition with his Triple-A club last summer.

A shortstop since being drafted in the second round in 2009, Hamilton spun his prodigious wheels into the outfield to begin 2013, a move that in hindsight looks like the right one.

"Most guys who are athletic enough to play shortstop, you can put them in center field and they will do OK. He was way better than OK," Riggleman said. "He was just outstanding."

Hamilton's 6-foot frame is better suited for center than short. He accelerates at an excellent pace -- his stolen base totals and the dejected look on many a catcher's face can speak to that -- but his long strides are better suited to cover ground on the grass than dirt. His jumps were surprisingly sharp in his first center-field season, too, immediately making him one of the rangiest outfielders at any level.

Riggleman believes Hamilton's transition was aided by his mentality -- an aggressive, run-run-run attitude that's helped him become one of baseball's most efficient basestealers. The speed/aggression combination helps him hunt down liners like a cheetah chasing prey.

"That fearlessness on the bases carried into center field as far as attacking balls in both gaps, going back and charging in on balls," Riggleman said. "The transition was very smooth. He really took to it like he'd been playing it his whole life."

Hamilton had some veteran help in making the move. Three-time Gold Glove winner Eric Davis is a special assistant to Reds general manager Walt Jocketty and spent time sharing pointers with Hamilton, as did Reds outfield and baserunning coordinator Darren Bragg. The organization helped Hamilton pick up some of the outfield's finer points, rounding his naturally excellent defense into a nearly finished product.

"He's just got a real good feel for it," Riggleman said. "He listens. The finer points of the game -- hitting the cutoff man or knowing when not to try to throw somebody out, that type of stuff -- he was good with that. He made good decisions."

The numbers back the positive scouting reports. According to Baseball Prospectus, Hamilton's 18.7 FRAA (fielding runs against average) was tops among all professional center fielders, and per, his 2.89 RF/G (range factor per game) was well above average compared to Major League center fielders.

Name to Learn: Kevin Kiermaier, Rays

If Hamilton chases pop flies like a hungry cheetah, Kevin Kiermaier is more of a ravenous junkyard dog fresh off the leash. Selected in the 31st round of the 2010 Draft, he was named the Best Defensive Player in the Rays system in 2012 and 2013, reaching the Majors as a September call-up and earning a spot on the team's Game 163 and Wild Card Game roster last season.

Kiermaier's calling card is his defense and his process is unique. He has excellent speed and a strong arm, but his tools play beyond his abilities because of his aggressive nature. He's like a heat-seeking missile targeting fly balls, thundering after anything he might have a chance to catch.

"It's almost like he's playing basketball out there," Triple-A Durham manager Charlie Montoyo said. "He makes jumping catches and throws with violence, but he makes good throws doing it. He's unique in doing that."

The 6-foot-1 Parkland (Ill.) College product spent 39 games with the Bulls near the end of last season, and the biggest impression he made on Montoyo was the way he helped control opponents' running games. Kiermaier's catch-and-release skills are uncanny. He can chase down a ball in the gap and, like an infielder, deliver an accurate strike to second base while still on the move.

"If there is a ball in the gap, he'll cut it off and throw it to second without looking -- boom-boom, real quick, stuff like that," Montoyo said. "He doesn't have to set his feet to make a good throw. ... You just go, 'Oh, my God, how'd he make that throw?' It's fun to watch."

Despite his brief stint at Triple-A, Kiermaier made an impression on opponents. It took only a couple weeks before third-base coaches were throwing up stop signs on balls hit toward center. Expect their big league counterparts to show the same caution as Kiermaier's highlights light up clubhouse televisions in the not-so-distant future.

The Toolshed: Lewis Brinson, Rangers

Listed at 6-foot-3 and 170 pounds, Lewis Brinson has managed to pack on roughly 30 pounds since being drafted but still has a frame reminiscent of standout center fielders like Adam Jones, Cameron Maybin and Dexter Fowler -- long and lanky, with galloping strides that chew up grass when he chases balls. The Florida native's athleticism is a rare gift that shines most clearly on defense.

"I've seen him run deep into left-center field and jump up over the wall and rob a home run in Hickory, and the wall there is a tall wall," Crawdads manager Corey Ragsdale said. "It's very impressive."

Brinson's defensive tools stack up with anybody in the game. Beyond his speed, he has a well above-average arm and a flair for jaw-dropping grabs. The Rangers farmhand excited spectators with a number of diving and leaping catches last season, showcasing playmaking abilities that could make him a regular on postgame highlight shows.

What he needs is repetition. With only 176 professional games under his belt, the 19-year-old still requires plenty of seasoning to improve his reads and routes.

"He's still very, very young," Ragsdale noted. "He doesn't always get the best reads, but for a center fielder, it takes seeing those balls. He has gotten much better from two years ago, when I had him in [the] Arizona [League] to the end of this past year.

"He's doing much better as far as reading balls off the bat and getting better jumps. He will keep getting better the more balls he sees off the bat."

Best of the Rest:

Jackie Bradley Jr., Red Sox: Though their skill sets are a bit different, Bradley and Hamilton are more or less interchangeable as Major League-ready ballhawkers. The Red Sox outfielder has been set to contribute defensively for a while, pairing tremendous instincts with average speed and a quality arm. His jumps and routes are considered a strength and he's also a strong decision-maker.

Albert Almora, Cubs: Like Bradley, Almora uses outstanding reactions to turn his average speed into outstanding range. The 2012 first-round pick can chase down flies with the best of them and also has a well-above-average arm. Though his bat may take a few more years to develop, his defensive game is already considered MLB-ready.

Andrew Aplin, Astros: It's yet to be seen how much Aplin will hit, but the 2012 fifth-rounder can absolutely defend at a big league level. The 6-footer glides to balls in every direction and should be a tremendous defensive asset to the Astros in the next few years.

"He's an absolutely outstanding center fielder," Astros director of professional scouting Kevin Goldstein told last fall. "He's a guy who gets big league-level reads and jumps, has really good hands and covers a ton of ground. He goes and gets it out there, and it's really exciting to watch."

Mason Williams | Slade Heathcott, Yankees: Either Williams or Heathcott could become a stellar defensive center fielder in the Majors, but both are facing make-or-break seasons for different reasons. Williams is a stud athlete who uses his tremendous speed to cover lots of ground, but his game has been hindered by lackluster conditioning and effort. Heathcott, meanwhile, is a prototypical gamer/grinder type who pairs plus speed with a strong arm. His issues have been health-related, affected partly by his rapacious, all-out style of play.

Travis Jankowski, Padres: A 2012 first-round (44th overall) pick out of Stony Brook, Jankowski was a Gold Glove winner in college and has continued to flash stellar leather as a pro. His 16.0 FRAA was third in all of baseball last season, per Baseball Prospectus, as he combined superb speed (71 stolen bases) with good instincts and a good arm to bail out the pitching staff at Class A Advanced Lake Elsinore.

Michael Taylor, Nationals: Like Hamilton, Taylor is a converted shortstop who has found success defending in center, mostly because his frame (6-foot-4, 205 pounds) is a better fit out on the grass. Taylor is a good runner who can cover ground with his long strides. Also a statistical favorite, Taylor was fifth in baseball with 14.4 FRAA in 2013.

Tyler Naquin, Indians: The 15th overall pick in the 2012 Draft entered his first full season a question mark in center, but the Texas A&M product made tremendous strides tracking down balls. Questions about his ability to stick up the middle have been set aside for now, although his superb arm strength should make him a defensive asset, even if he does eventually outgrow center.

"He was very impressive last year," Double-A Akron manager Dave Wallace said. "Everyone knows how strong of an arm he has, but to watch him go run down balls in the gap and then how fearless he plays and how controlled he played against the wall was very impressive."

Honorable Mentions: Gary Brown, Giants; James Baldwin, Dodgers; Ryan LaMarre, Reds; Kyle Wren, Braves; D.J. Davis, Blue Jays.

Jake Seiner is a contributor to Follow him on Twitter at @Jake_Seiner.