Buxton's Source Of Unlimited Potential Is Starting To Fail Him

Photo Credit: Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

On a typical rehab day, Byron Buxton begins therapy at 8:00 am and is on the field by 10:00 am. He can participate in all baseball activities and swing and throw at full speed. “By 12:00 pm, I’m playing with my boys,” he said. “Still a family man.”

Buxton rehabs every day and plans to play center field next year after exclusively DHing last year. “Oh yeah,” he told a TwinsFest crowd at the Fillmore last Friday. “I’m back.”

He won’t say how many games he expects to play in center field; his body will determine that. But Buxton says that he’s excited to return to center. “Nothing,” he said, “makes me happier than playing the outfield.”

Late last March, Derek Falvey said the Twins had a load management plan for Buxton to start the year. After arthroscopic knee surgery ended Buxton’s first All-Star season in 2022, Minnesota planned to use Buxton as a designated hitter to keep his bat in the lineup. They hoped he’d return to center field in May to build strength while avoiding poor April conditions.

But May became June, June became July, and Buxton remained a DH. Buxton played his last regular-season game in St. Louis on August 1, finishing the year .207/.294/.438 with 17 home runs in 85 games. Buxton was in the training room from 1:00 to 4:00 pm, then spent 4:00 to 5:00 pm in the weight room to prepare for each game. “It’s just kind of one of those things where I didn’t feel like I took a break,” he said.

Every day I came in, it was like, ‘Oh, you’ve got to go to the training room. You’ve got to do this.’ It was numerous things with the knee. One day, it could be my hip. One day, it could be my knee. One day, it could be my hamstring.

But that’s the effect you have when you’re battling, and you try to play. It starts creeping, and then my hamstring goes when we go to St. Louis. That was when I realized you can’t play hurt. You play hurt, I’m just going to injure myself further. I couldn’t make it back for the playoffs last year.

Buxton had one at-bat in the postseason. He pinch-hit in the eighth inning of Minnesota’s Game 4 loss to the Houston Astros. Buxton popped out, but the plate appearance culminated all the work he put in to get back last season.

“I don’t even know if it was the at-bat,” he said. “It was more the fans. I haven’t played in three months, and I came on deck, and I can kind of hear it. But when I got to the plate, it was one of those, it was bigger to me than just that at-bat. It just showed me how much the fans still cared even though it didn’t go the way I wanted it to that season.”

The bitter irony with Buxton is that his body was once the source of unlimited potential. projected him to be a five-tool player and compared his ascent through the minor leagues to Mike Trout’s. Keith Law believed Buxton was the best player in the 2012 draft. “His body and off-the-charts athleticism have earned him comparisons to players from the Uptons [B.J. and Justin] to Matt Kemp to Eric Davis to Willie Mays,” Law wrote in 2014. “If you want raw tools, this is about as good as it gets.”

Buxton played his last full season in 2017. He won a Gold Glove that year and received MVP votes after hitting .253/.314/.413 in 140 games, leading the Twins back to the playoffs for the first time since 2010. Buxton hit .277/.321/.576 with 42 home runs from 2019 to 2021 and received MVP votes again in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. However, he only played 187 games in those three years.

It’s harder to quantify his defensive contributions, but his ability to get nearly any ball hit in the middle of the field is reassuring for Minnesota’s pitching staff. Knowing he’ll be back out there next year excites his teammates.

“He’s mentally prepared to play center field,” Carlos Correa said during TwinsFest. “He knows that, as a team, is what we want from him. He knows that is when we are at our best when he’s in center field. He’s been putting in the work this offseason. He feels great. His knee is in a good spot. His body is in a really good spot. Opening Day in Kansas City, I want to see him out there in center field.”

Rocco Baldelli echoed Buxton’s sentiment that his body will determine how often he plays center field. But he plans to have Buxton in the middle of Kaufman Stadium’s outfield when the season starts on March 28. The Twins haven’t re-signed Michael A. Taylor, who played well in center field last year, or any other player to back up Buxton. They may eventually add depth at center, but the middle of the outfield is Buxton’s so long as his body holds up.

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