Byron Buxton electrified the Minor Leagues in 2013. He established himself as the most promising prospect since Mike Trout while displaying all-around tools that actually graded slightly higher than those of Trout.
But the Twins center fielder hasn't brought the same kind of excitement to the diamond this season. That's because Buxton has yet to play in a game. He is the most prominent prospect among several who have been sidelined by injuries.
Buxton, whose Arizona Fall League stint was shortened by a strained left shoulder, sprained his left wrist diving for a ball in a Minor League exhibition game on March 16. Though he resumed swinging a bat in the past week, he probably won't get any game action until sometime in May. The Twins likely will have Buxton begin at Fort Myers, the site of their training base as well as their high Class A club, rather than sending him straight to Double-A New Britain as originally planned.
"He's started some light swinging now and we'll have to see how he progresses with that," said Brad Steil, Minnesota's director of Minor League operations. "We hope he'll be ready for extended Spring Training games by the end of the month. With anyone, you want to make sure when they come back they don't do it again and re-injure themselves."
Buxton ranks No. 1 on MLBPipeline.com's Top 100 Prospects list, three spots ahead of another Twin, third baseman Miguel Sano. Sano has more pure power than any player in the Minors, but he might not display it at all this year because he had Tommy John elbow surgery on March 12.
Sano strained the elbow while playing in the Dominican Winter League, then injured it further during Spring Training. Steil said it's possible that Sano could get some at-bats as a designated hitter in August, but it's too early to know because he can't do anything with his right arm at this point.
The Pirates, who have three of their best prospects currently out of action, have it even worse than the Twins. The biggest blow came when right-hander Jameson Taillon -- No. 20 on the Top 100 -- also required Tommy John surgery. He threw a 94-97 mph fastball in what turned out to be his final Minor League exhibition outing, but his elbow bothered him afterward.
Top prospects on the shelf
Taillon took two weeks off, yet the pain persisted. Though he didn't have a complete tear of his ulnar collateral ligament, he opted for surgery on April 9. Kyle Stark, Pittsburgh's assistant general manager, said a realistic target for Taillon's return to action is May 2015.
"It just reinforces the volatility of pitching," Stark said. "I don't know that Jameson is a guy who was necessarily identified as a big risk based on his arm action and delivery. I also don't know that anyone said he was picture-perfect either. We felt that we managed his workload pretty well, but at the end of the day, he had discomfort, we checked him out and it made sense to have this done."
The Pirates' second-best pitching prospect also is on the shelf. Right-hander Tyler Glasnow, ranked No. 26 overall, came down with a stiff lower back that prevented him from throwing in any Minor League Spring Training games. He did hit 100 mph with his fastball seven times in an extended spring outing on Monday, and after one more start there, he'll report to high Class A Bradenton. But the prognosis isn't as rosy for outfielder Austin Meadows (No. 43), who experienced a setback with a left hamstring strain and will be sidelined into next month.
"We want to get all of these guys out and playing under the lights," Stark said. "We don't want our guys to have to deal with injuries. But there are always development lessons that come out of these things. We always preach to control the controllable. It's also a lesson for young players learning their bodies and how to deal with being hurt and how to grow personally through these things."
Minnesota and Pittsburgh aren't the only teams with Top 50 prospects who have been unable to play in a game this season. Orioles right-hander Dylan Bundy (No. 19) had Tommy John surgery in June, so his absence was expected. But those of Padres lefty Max Fried (No. 41), Indians outfielder Clint Frazier (No. 46) and Marlins third baseman Colin Moran (No. 49) were not.
San Diego decided to be cautious with Fried after he reported forearm soreness in Spring Training, while Moran strained the meniscus in his left knee. Both could make their 2014 debuts later this month. Frazier injured his hamstring during the spring, but he will join class A Lake County on Thursday.
There also are three blue-chip prospects who were healthy at the start of the season but currently reside on Minor League disabled lists. Cubs shortstop Javier Baez (No. 7) sprained his left ankle taking ground balls during batting practice. A's shortstop Addison Russell (No. 11) tore his right hamstring in his second game of the season, while Cubs outfielder Jorge Soler (No. 47) hurt his left hamstring running out a double in his first at-bat.
Right-hander Taijuan Walker (No. 6) is on the Mariners' disabled list after coming down with shoulder inflammation in February. He made two rehab starts in the Minors but missed a scheduled third outing on Tuesday when the shoulder stiffened. Seattle has shut Walker down until the end of the month.
That makes for an unlucky total of 13 of baseball's 50 best prospects who are currently sidelined. While none of the injuries should be career-altering, the teams with sidelined phenoms are anxious to see them return.
"It is frustrating right now," Steil said. "Two of our best guys are down. But we're not the only ones. You see all the injuries across the game, and we're not the only team dealing with it. Long term, they should be fine. It's just going to require time and patience."