The Twins have high expectations for their offense in 2021. It’s a talented group with veterans Nelson Cruz and Josh Donaldson playing alongside young players on the rise like Alex Kirilloff, Ryan Jeffers, and Luis Arraez. In the middle both metaphorically and positionally, however, centerfielder Byron Buxton undergirds the Twins’ machine in both halves of the inning. He’s the player on the roster with the highest two-way ceiling, and at 27 years old, he’s in his prime. He’s also two years from free agency. Buxton’s agent has been in contact with the Twins about a potential extension, per Phil Miller of the Star Tribune (via Twitter), but there’s a lot for the Twins to consider.
Defense has long been Buxton’s calling card. He is routinely one of the more impressive performers in the grass, and the numbers back it up. He has averaged 18.3 defensive runs saved and 9.8 UZR per 1,200 innings, which roughly amounts to one season. Both are excellent marks. Statcast is similarly complimentary of Buxton’s glovework, crediting him with five outs above average in 2020. That tied with four others for sixth among outfielders, despite only appearing in 39 games. In 2017, when Buxton was healthy enough to play more than 100 games, he racked up 30 OAA, not only topping the field in that season, but setting the bar. It remains the highest single-season mark from any outfielder in the Statcast era by a fair margin.
Buxton entered the league less polished on the other end, but he has nonetheless come into his own over the past two seasons. Early in his career, he was plagued by strikeout rates over 30 percent, only average power, and well-below-average walk rates. The latter still holds true, but the Twins want him swinging the bat because good things happen when he does. His exit velocity has surged from 88.3 mph in 2015-18 to 90.4 mph the past two seasons. His power has climbed into an elite range as well, rising from .157 ISO his first four seasons to .292 ISO in 430 plate appearances across 2019-20. A bat that was 23 percent below average through 2018 has been 13 percent above average since.
Put together, Buxton’s potential is that of a two-way centerpiece at one of the most important positions on the diamond. The Twins have to be tempted to find a way to keep the former number two overall pick in a Twins uniform long-term. Buxton would like to stay in Minnesota, but the Twins are focused on keeping him healthy in 2021, per the Athletic’s Dan Hayes.
Though the idea of Buxton wearing a Twins uniform long-term is tantalizing, the injury concerns are real. The Twins have placed Buxton on the injured list no less than 13 times since he’s been in their organization, with the ailments ranging from concussions to wrist sprains to shoulder issues. The Georgia native hasn’t seen his skills affected, however. He remains one of the fastest players in the game, finishing in the 99th percentile for sprint speed in every season of his career. He turned in a strong batted ball profile in 2020 as well, landing in the 85th percentile for exit velocity, 89th percentile for hard hit percentage, and 88th percentile for barrel percentage.
Finding the right price point for such a high-risk, high-ceiling player will be a challenge for the Twins and Buxton’s representatives at Jet Sports Management. The muddled centerfield market certainly doesn’t help matters. Despite it being one of the weaker positions around the game, Jackie Bradley Jr. struggled to find the kind of deal he was looking for and ultimately settled on a two-year, $24MM offer with an opt-out. Meanwhile, George Springer had no trouble securing a deal, signing in Toronto for six years and $150MM. There were no free agent centerfielders to sign a multi-year deal last winter. The year before it was AJ Pollock joining the Dodgers for five years, $60MM and Andrew McCutchen signing a three-year, $50MM deal with the Phillies. Neither player primarily plays center anymore, however. Lorenzo Cain signed a five-year, $80MM deal with the Brewers the year before that.
Pollock is a natural comp as an oft-injured potential star in center, but he was entering his age-31 season as a free agent, two years younger than Buxton would be after 2022. Cain was also 31, so was Dexter Fowler when he signed with the Cardinals, so will be Springer and Bradley in the first seasons of their new deals. Suffice is to say that it’s hardly a simple task to project what Buxton might find in free agency – especially two years from now under the conditions of a new CBA. The Twins have maintained flexibility in long-term payroll, with their luxury tax payroll falling from ~$147MM this year to ~$66MM in commitments for 2022 and ~$57MM the year after.
But let’s put the financial parameters of a deal to the side for now, and consider the question simply. Should the Twins try to sign Buxton to a long-term deal?
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