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Gardenhire has (future) stars in his eyes this spring

Twins manager likes idea of Buxton, other touted prospects in lineup soon

JUPITER, Fla. -- Ron Gardenhire wrote Byron Buxton into his lineup for the first time, and it apparently made him a little giddy.

"I'd like to see the kid play [some], and then we'll see what he does," Gardenhire said. "Terry's not here, so I might just try to sneak him in my lineup."

Terry Ryan, the Twins' general manager who is in Minnesota recovering from surgery to remove a cancerous lump from his neck, and the organization's player development staff long ago made it clear they are only loaning the 20-year-old center fielder to the Major League team. There's no job for Buxton to win this spring -- that battle will be waged between Aaron Hicks and Alex Presley once Buxton is gone -- but the top prospect's presence is being felt.

Ditto that of 23-year-old shortstop Danny Santana and 24-year-old right-hander Alex Meyer, among others. Miguel Sano, 20-year-old third baseman with prodigious power, had helped set the mood before learning last week that he needs Tommy John surgery on his right elbow.

"The camp's going along really nice," said Gardenhire, who received a two-year extension from Ryan despite three consecutive seasons of 96-plus losses. "There's confidence, some really, really talented young kids here. Our future's pretty bright with these kids here. If they develop and do what they're supposed to do, it's going to be pretty fun around here for a while."

Buxton, the second overall pick in the 2012 First-Year Player Draft, is strictly along for the ride, even if he is ranked as the No. 1 prospect by and others. The outfielder starred in the Midwest and Florida State Leagues last year, and he's ticketed for the Double-A Eastern League this season, regardless of what he does in a limited look in Major League camp.

"I don't think it's going to matter, to be honest with you," Twins assistant GM Rob Antony said Tuesday. "I don't think he's in the mix right now. Last year we came in with open competition in center field. There is competition for center field, but for a player of his ability who hasn't played above high [Class] A ball, I think it would be a stretch to throw him in there. The primary objective of this Spring Training for him is to get his feet wet, to be around it all, to get acclimated so when he is up here for real, when he's ready to compete for a job, he's comfortable."

Buxton had picked up only seven plate appearances in the Twins' first five games before going 0-for-5 in Tuesday's 3-1 loss to the Marlins at Roger Dean Stadium. He had delivered a double over the center fielder's head that helped Minnesota win on Monday against Baltimore, flashing the bat speed that he combines with unusually good strike-zone judgment. Buxton's making a positive impression in other ways. His speed and his maturity, for instance.

"He's a very humble guy," Twins pitcher Phil Hughes said. "I know that. For a guy who has had so much press, so much pub, he really handles himself well. Hustles every ball out down the line."

That he does. Buxton almost turned a routine grounder to Marlins second baseman Ed Lucas into a single by accelerating quickly and running hard.

"Just trying to get down there," he said afterward.

In Monday's game in Sarasota, Fla., Buxton kept a ninth-inning rally alive by beating out what had looked like a game-ending double play.

"No matter how hard it's hit, I'm going to hustle to the base," Buxton said.

Gardenhire loves it.

"I'm not too worried about the young man," the manager said. "He's doing just fine. He goes about his business, sits on the bench. I know he's probably never done that in his life. He sits on the bench, and when you tell him to get loose and go in, he's ready. He comes [to the park] and he plays hard and he keeps his mouth shut. He goes about his business pretty good."

Buxton is 2-for-12, playing in five games. He says he has noticed a difference in the speed of Major League games and is "still trying to slow it down." Buxton doesn't seem the type to take anything for granted, but the injury to Sano was felt by everyone in Minnesota's camp.

Sano, who hit 35 home runs between high Class A and Double-A last year, was positioned to challenge Trevor Plouffe for the third-base job before the elbow injury. Sano had been ahead of Buxton, but he could get passed while he's spending this season rehabbing.

"You just want to see him play," Gardenhire said. "Whether he was going to start here or start at Triple-A, it didn't really matter. But you like to see those kids develop and play. ... I'm sure he was disappointed, but he's a pretty positive kid. His first words to me were, 'I'm going to take care of this and I'll be back quick.' He's a pretty positive kid and pretty talented."

Hughes, the former Yankee signed to a three-year, $24-million contract, is part of a pitching influx that occupied Ryan in the offseason. The righty joins Ricky Nolasco, Mike Pelfrey and Kevin Correia in a blue-collar rotation that should be a lot deeper than those in recent years.

"We just need to get through Spring Training," Gardenhire said. "I don't want to put any jinxes, any whammies on us, but we have four guys we're pretty sure are going to be in the rotation at this point. We're looking for a fifth starter and we've got some good candidates. That's a pretty solid way to go about it. They all have to perform, but we like the thought of it."

It's fair to say Gardenhire also likes the thought of a healthy Joe Mauer in the lineup every day now that the career .323 hitter has moved from catcher to first base.

"First time in a long time in Spring Training he's been able to go in at lunch time and get lunch," Gardenhire said. "Catchers are always doing something. There's actually food in the lunch room, and he likes that. Believe me, he's a happy guy. He's been smiling. We don't see him in the trainer's room as much. He's only there when he's doing his exercises. We don't see him in the hot tub as much, getting ice massages and all those things. I can promise you it's a lot different for him."

The Twins hope this season will be different for them. They'd love to be out of last place when guys like Buxton and Sano start to arrive.

Phil Rogers is a columnist for
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