Buxton already eyeing big things for '24: 'I can't wait'

February 19th, 2024

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- actually admitted upon his arrival to Spring Training that he was really nervous to step foot in the outfield and track his first fly ball, which was really just about the most un-Buxton-like claim imaginable, considering he usually thinks of himself as someone who can simply roll out of bed and play elite defense in center.

There aren't any nerves anymore. Just the pure, infectious joy and gregariousness that only comes out of Buxton without restraint when he knows -- and everyone around him knows -- that he really is feeling that good.

Buxton was clearly overjoyed in an emptying clubhouse after he torched his teammates in sprinting drills, came inches away from a homer on his very first live swing of the spring and tracked down that first fly ball in the outfield during live batting practice on Monday. He was even confident enough to assert that he and Willi Castro will each drop 30 stolen bases this season.

“We got about 30,” Buxton said. “Me and him, 30 apiece. We're good. Means I'm on a lot and running a lot. I feel good. I feel real good.”

“I think we’re seeing a happy and healthy player right now,” manager Rocco Baldelli said. “That’s what we’re seeing. … I know there’s a whole lot of things to talk about when it comes to Byron, but he really is doing great physically right now, so we’re just going to build every day.”

Typically more guarded when talking about his physical condition and his ramp-up in Spring Training, Buxton is instead basking in the glow of seemingly finally being pain-free in his right knee after his offseason procedure to excise the plica in the troublesome joint, the latest thing that has hampered him in his long (and well-documented) line of maladies over the years.

The hope is that having center field back in his toolkit will help the mental side of his hitting game, too. And after he watched his first live pitch of the spring go by, he took a big hack at the second, a slider from Bailey Ober, and crushed it off the very top of the wall in right-center.

“I mean, I wasn't going up there to take no pitches,” Buxton said. “I've got to get myself ready for these games, too.”

As Buxton left his teammates in the dust while sprinting on the back fields, he turned around to grin at them. And after taking some high practice flies on those fields with outfield coordinator Mike Quade and outfield coach Tommy Watkins, Buxton walked to center field with Watkins during the last group of live batting practice with Cole Sands on the mound.

When Carlos Santana came to the plate, Buxton proclaimed to Watkins that he was moving to right field so that he could catch one. Watkins poked fun at him, saying that as soon as Buxton vacated center field, that’s where the batted balls would go.

Lo and behold: On the next pitch, Santana roped a sharp line drive directly at Buxton in the right-center-field gap, and Buxton made sure to let Watkins know. It’s those moments of being able to just mess around on the outfield grass again that makes all this so much more enjoyable for Buxton, who never made it to center field on defense last year.

“That's something that last year, I didn't do,” Buxton said. “I didn't have a glove on, wasn't in the outfield doing ground balls. For me, I feel like I'm catching up from last year. That's what's fun to me. That's what gets my mind off of whatever else is happening.”

There’s still a long way to go for a healthy Buxton to make it to center field at Kauffman Stadium on Opening Day -- and beyond -- and he’ll still need to show he can make it there, after having fallen short of anything resembling a full season in every campaign since he won the Platinum Glove Award in 2017.

He knows that, but he also clearly knows that he’s feeling as good as he has in a long, long time. And it already has him dreaming big, of center field and 30 steals.

“'Stro, what I told you this year? What are we doing with these stolen bases?” Buxton yelled across the clubhouse at a grinning Castro, who was getting dressed at his locker.

“We know. We all know, and I can't wait.”