With Buxton, Kepler and Rosario, future is here for Twins OF

When Byron Buxton, Max Kepler and Eddie Rosario started in the Minnesota Twins organization, they were spindly teenagers with plenty of potential.

They’ve been through their growing pains since then. Now the Twins hope their young outfielders have grown enough to shoulder the load of a rebuilding team.

“There’s no pressure,” Kepler said. “We’ve been told to just go out and play with no worries, to not be so tedious and just have fun out there.”

The 25-and-under trio will occupy the outfield for Minnesota on opening day. If the projections proceed as planned, that will be the case for may seasons to come. With their speed and agility, Buxton, Kepler and Rosario also have the building blocks to give the Twins one of the top outfield defenses in baseball.

Last year, Twins pitchers were last in the American League in ERA (5.08) by more than a half-run, opponent’s batting average (.283) by 14 points and on-base-plus-slugging percentage (.806) by 32 points.

“Defensively, I don’t think we have a ceiling,” Kepler said. “Bux is unbelievable out there. Rosie has a great arm. The sky’s the limit with this group.”

Their abilities at the plate will be just as significant of a factor in a franchise turnaround following a club-record 103 losses in 2016.

Buxton, the best defender of the bunch with a penchant for spectacular catches in center field, began last September to show the offensive potential that made him the second overall pick in the 2012 amateur draft out of Appling County High School in Georgia. In his final 44 games, Buxton had nine home runs and 26 RBIs in 167 plate appearances. Over parts of two major league seasons, Buxton has a .220 batting average with 12 home runs and 12 stolen bases.

“I think I tried to do a lot of things that I may not have been capable of doing, which might have kept me from being myself,” said Buxton, who turned 23 in December. “I was trying to be somebody else. The pressure definitely played a factor in how things went for me. Now I’ve pretty much let that go. Go out and just be who I am.”

Buxton has battled myriad injuries in his brief career, mostly stemming from what he called “an intense competitiveness” that triggers maximum effort every time he takes the field. With health and confidence restored entering the 2017 season, Buxton has been tried by manager Paul Molitor everywhere from the leadoff spot to third to fifth in an attempt to maximize his potential – and the team’s – at the plate. Entering Wednesday, Buxton was batting .235 in spring training play with one home run and a team-high six doubles.

“Byron is trending,” Molitor said. “We can’t predict the pace, but the scale might go pretty high.”

The German-born Kepler started his professional career with the Twins at age 17, after signing the summer before. He was part of the stellar 2009 crop of international free agents with third baseman Miguel Sano and shortstop Jorge Polanco. In his first full season in the majors in 2016, the native of Berlin broke out with 17 home runs and 52 RBIs in 396 at-bats while playing a steady right field.

Since his arrival in the U.S., Kepler has added about one inch and 25 pounds to his 6-foot-4 frame. He has grown in many other ways, too.

“Mentally and the way I approach every game,” the 24-year-old said. “I’ve learned to accept failure. Growing up in Europe where most kids played soccer, I was always the best, but when I came over here everyone was just as good or better. I’m still hard on myself, but I’ve learned to be tougher mentally to accept those things.”

Rosario wasn’t quite as productive last season as he was as a rookie in 2015, when he tied for second in the majors with 16 outfield assists, but at age 25 he has enjoyed a strong spring. Before joining Team Puerto Rico for the World Baseball Classic, the left fielder was batting .375 with one double in six exhibition games.

“He’s been exciting to watch,” Molitor said.

Mostly grown up now, the trio is still taking that go-have-fun attitude to the ballpark like when they were teenagers.

“The ceiling is whatever we say it is,” Buxton said. “We’ve got a really great group of guys that just like to go out there and play baseball.”