The Minnesota Twins often have to ask specific questions of their players whom they suspect are injured. Tyler Mahle tried to pitch through shoulder soreness last year. Jorge Polanco refuses to come out of the lineup. Nick Gordon fractured his shin in Los Angeles but finished his at-bat.
“I wish Nick didn’t have to take that last swing, knowing now that his leg was fractured,” Rocco Baldelli said after Minnesota’s May 17 game against the Los Angeles Dodgers. “Doesn’t look like it’s displaced, or he further hurt himself taking that extra swing. But I’ll bet it was painful.”
It’s hard to blame the players. Some have little job security and want to be available every day. Others are trying to live up to a life-changing contract. But Baldelli and the front office have appreciated how forthcoming Byron Buxton is about how he’s feeling. It’s why he downplayed Buxton’s injury on Sunday.
“Before we had to take him out of the game, he’s probably run more in that past week than any time I’ve seen him really in a significant period of time,” said Baldelli. “So I’ve been happy with what he’s been doing, and I was actually especially happy that he was honest with us and didn’t push himself to the point where we’re having different conversations.”
Buxton is on board with Minnesota’s program for him, something they developed in Spring Training this year.
“100 percent,” he said before Monday’s game against the San Francisco Giants. “The more you know your body, the more you stay on the field and be healthy. It’s something that I’m figuring out, and one day is better than 10. For me, it’s all about trying to limit going on the IL.”
Buxton has had only one healthy season when he played 140 games in 2017. That year he won a Gold Glove, garnered MVP votes, and the Twins returned to the playoffs for the first time since 2010. But injuries have plagued him ever since. Buxton is playing on a $100 million contract, but he’d be worth three times that had he stayed healthy.
In late March, the Twins laid out a plan to keep him on the field.
“What’s important to me is that (Buxton) is ready to go out there on Opening Day and Game 2 and Game 3 and Game 4 and be prepared to help us win and be in the lineup a vast majority of the time,” Baldelli said on March 21. “If he’s in the lineup, I like our chances. … The best thing to do is to make sure he’s in the lineup as much as possible. Continue to keep him in a great spot physically, and then see what the rest of April and what May brings.”
“Load management is the NBA term,” Derek Falvey said at the time. “It’s probably a fair term to use just because we think about games and reps in center field, games and reps at DH. Those are different stresses every day, obviously. It’s more: How do we maintain his health through the course of the season as much as we can?”
It’s May 23, and the Twins have not used Buxton in the field yet. He’s hit .235/.344/.828 (128 OPS+) as Minnesota’s designated hitter, within range of his All-Star numbers last year. Buxton has also stayed healthy, playing in more games than he did in 2018 and the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. However, the Twins can only get maximum value from him if he plays center. He catches balls nobody else can, stealing runs while generating them at the plate.
“I’m comfortable wherever I’m at,” he said. “I still work on my defensive stuff. Even though I’m not on the field, there’s still stuff I do that for me I’m working on to return back out there.”
Still, Buxton isn’t going to deceive management about his injury status to play center again. On a team full of players willing to gut it out through anything, Buxton is trying to lead by example. If he needs a day off, he’ll take it.
It’s a day I needed, and we took cautionary actions to limit it. For me, it’s all about being there for my teammates and being in that leadership role. For me to do what I did and come out for that tightness, you know, shows a little bit more of who I’m trying to become. Most of the time, I would’ve tried to push myself through that, which would prevent myself from going back like I could today.
Minnesota’s approach is prudent. They need to keep Buxton on the field. But limiting him to DH prevents them from using it as a rotating spot to keep other position players in the lineup when they need a day off in the field. It’s also like driving a sports car in fourth gear. It’ll get you places and prevent wear and tear on the engine, but you’re not maximizing the horsepower.
The Twins can treat Buxton like a Lexus or a Ferrari. He can either be a reliable everyday hitter or a dynamic, but often injured, center fielder. They could use him primarily as a designated hitter, but it limits what they can do with their lineup and removes a valuable part of his game. They can use him primarily as a center fielder, where he can generate runs at the plate and rob opponents of them in the field. But he may play less due to injury.
Ultimately, Buxton’s greatest asset is his speed. The Twins should unleash his full potential. Still, they’re going to take a nuanced approach. It’s not like they won’t ever play him in the field, but they’ll be inclined to play it safe with a player who’s frequently hurt. Minnesota needs Buxton on the field. They’re holding themselves back if they don’t let him realize his full potential as a complete player.