Twins

The Manuel Margot Trade Is Another Bet On Byron Buxton's Health

Photo Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Tuesday was a day that Minnesota Twins fans had waited for a long time – about 554 days, to be exact.

Byron Buxton was wearing a Twins uniform and standing in center field. It wasn’t a warmup or a quick workout; he played in an actual baseball game, and Buxton’s name was in the lineup at his natural position.

Buxton’s return to the outfield carries mixed emotions. Some fans are eager to see Buxton back on the field and free from the pain that sabotaged the past two seasons. Others wonder how long it will last for a player who has played over 100 games in a season once in his nine-year career.

But perhaps the most important opinion comes from the front office. Minnesota’s trade for Manuel Margot on Monday is another bet on Buxton returning to form.

In April 2022, Buxton injured his knee sliding into second base at Fenway Park. After missing some time initially, Buxton recovered enough to earn his first All-Star selection, hitting .216/293/.531 with 23 home runs, 43 RBI, and two stolen bases in the first half. However, he aggravated the injury and was limited to 19 games in the second half of the season.

The offseason left Minnesota with a series of questions. Was an offseason of rest good enough to help Buxton regain his form? Would they need to limit his playing time to keep him healthy? Did the Twins need to make a trade for a center fielder, or could they ride Buxton and cross their fingers that nothing happened?

To some degree, the answer was all of the above. Buxton underwent a procedure on his knee in September 2022 and rehabbed it throughout the offseason. The Twins wanted to ease Buxton back into the outfield and devised a plan to use him as the designated hitter for the season’s opening month.

These two events suggested that Buxton would be patrolling center field sometime during the summer of 2023. However, their trade for Michael A. Taylor suggested otherwise.

A veteran presence as a fourth outfielder also isn’t a bad idea. But the Taylor trade seemed like overkill for what could have been a minor problem.

Taylor was a former Gold Glove Award winner in center field and had nine years of big-league experience. He wasn’t a superstar before coming to Minnesota, but he also felt like a starting-caliber player thanks to his five outs above average in 2022. If you consider Buxton had eight outs above average the same season, it felt like Taylor was more of a replacement than an insurance policy.

That’s what played out in the opening months of the season. Taylor was Minnesota’s Opening Day centerfielder, and Buxton occupied the designated hitter spot. Spring turned into summer, and Buxton was still gutting his way up to the plate. But he didn’t get back into the outfield until a rehab assignment with Triple-A St. Paul last September.

The experiment didn’t last long. The Twins shut Buxton down with inflammation and irritation in his left knee. Buxton rehabbed enough to get a plate appearance in Game 4 of Minnesota’s American League Divisional Series against the Houston Astros. However, that was it until Buxton underwent another procedure this offseason.

Minnesota’s payroll restrictions may have limited their options to acquire another insurance policy for Buxton. Still, it’s worth noting they didn’t go after a similar player to Taylor in free agency. If they had signed in Minnesota, Kevin Kiermaier or Harrison Bader could have been everyday centerfielders. However, that would have also been a bad sign for Buxton’s availability.

The same could be said for Taylor, who is still a free agent. Taylor proved he could handle a starting role. He hit .220/.278/.442 with 21 homers, 51 RBI, and 13 stolen bases last season and is probably looking for such on the open market. Had he returned to Minnesota, that would have been another vote against Buxton’s return. Instead, the opposite storyline has played out.

Buxton appeared at TwinsFest and declared, “I’m back” in center field. He told anyone who would listen that he feels like the player he was becoming a few years ago.

That would be a massive win for the Twins. Buxton was starting to ascend to stardom from July 13, 2019, to June 17, 2022. Although he battled several injuries, Buxton hit .272/.321/.611 with 52 home runs, 96 RBI, and 13 stolen bases over 162 games. His fielding was even better. He had 37 defensive runs saved from the start of the 2019 season through the 2022 season, and he put up an 8.3 wins above replacement (WAR).

Buxton’s injuries also make fans forget how good he was at the beginning of the 2022 season. He was hitting .231/.311/.586/ with 19 home runs and 33 RBI when he socked his leadoff home run against the Arizona Diamondbacks on June 17.

Had Buxton played in 75 percent of games, he would have hit 46 home runs with a .581 slugging percentage. Buxton would have joined a list of players that includes Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (2021), Shohei Ohtani (2021), Pete Alonso (2019), Cody Bellinger (2019), Aaron Judge (2017), Giancarlo Stanton (2017) and Chris Davis (2013) since 2012.

Consider that this was just 20 months ago, and Buxton showed signs of improvement last season. He had a career-high 10.1 percent walk rate and 116.9 mph maximum exit velocity. His 91.1 mph average exit velocity was a steep drop from the career-high 92.9 mph he put up in 2022. Still, it was Buxton’s fifth straight season over 90 mph, with the streak beginning in 2019.

A player like Buxton doesn’t need a premium backup option in centerfield because he’s a guy you want to have in the lineup daily. Buxton’s talent has never been the problem. But if the Twins were worried, they probably would have gone after a better option than Margot.

Margot is comparable to Taylor and even an upgrade in some ways. But he’s not a guy you want to play 129 games like Taylor did last year. After undergoing elbow surgery last August, the Tampa Bay Rays traded Margot to the Los Angeles Dodgers as part of the Tyler Glasnow trade. He’ll collect checks from Tampa Bay, LA, and Minnesota in 2023.

Again, trading for Margot could be due to the budget restrictions that have dominated the headlines, but the Twins could have sought a better option. They could have signed Kiermaier or Bader in free agency and brought back Taylor with the promise of a starting role. However, that’s not what they did, Buxton told reporters he plans on stealing 30 bases.

It’s understandable if Twins fans feel as comfortable watching Buxton in center field as watching Kenny McCormick cross the street during an episode of South Park. But Minnesota has shown little urgency to acquire an insurance plan this offseason.

Either way, it’s another bet on Buxton returning to the player he was, which could be great news for Minnesota’s chances next season.

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