Twins fans received some positive news on the status of Byron Buxton today, as La Velle E. Neal III of the Star Tribune reports that Buxton is fully recovered from the arthroscopic knee surgery he underwent back in October. Neal adds that team officials are pleased with Buxton’s progress and that the goal for the 29-year-old is for him to return to baseball activities by the end of 2023. It’s a promising update, particularly in tandem with recent comments from president of baseball operations Derek Falvey that indicated the club hopes to return Buxton to center field for the 2024 season.
Buxton, 30 later this month, struggled to stay healthy in 2023 even as the Twins moved him to the DH role on an everyday basis. Despite his typically elite center field defense, Buxton did not take the field at all this past season, appearing as a pinch hitter in five games and as the club’s DH in his other 80 appearances. The limited time on his feet unfortunately did not help Buxton stay productive at the plate, as he slashed just .207/.294/.438 with a 98 wRC+ that clocked in just below league average.
Considerable as Buxton’s struggles were in 2023, however, it’s difficult to overstate how transformative his the slugger’s presence can be when healthy. In addition to being one of the league’s most elite defensive outfielders, Buxton has shown the ability to provide game-changing offensive contributions as well. From 2020-22, he slashed a whopping .257/.317/.576 (144 wRC+) with 60 homers and 9.3 fWAR in 771 trips to the plate. The rub there, of course, is that Buxton was only to take the field for just over a full season’s worth of plate appearances across the shortened 2020 season and two full, 162-game campaigns.
Buxton’s substantial injury history led the Twins to acquire center fielder Michael A. Taylor from the Royals last offseason as a backup plan to Buxton. That decision proved to be a prudent one, as Taylor stepped in as the club’s regular center fielder in Buxton’s stead and performed admirably, pairing a strong glove with 21 home runs in 388 trips to the plate. With Taylor having departed for free agency last month, the Star Tribune’s Bobby Nightengale suggests that center field is the “biggest question mark” on the club’s roster as things stand, even as Buxton appears set to attempt to reclaim the regular job this spring.
If Buxton were to fall victim to the injury bug again, the Twins would have no other dedicated center fielder on their 40-man roster. That doesn’t mean the club completely lacks internal solutions. Nightengale notes that former fifth-overall pick Austin Martin, who has 65 games of experience in center at the minor league level, figures to focus on the position this spring, though he made just 12 appearances at the position last year and has yet to make his big league debut. In terms of players with major league experience, the club’s options in center field should Buxton be unable to handle full-time duties are limited to utility players Willi Castro and Nick Gordon, neither of whom has appeared at the position in more than 45 games in a season before.
That could make center field a position of need for the Twins even as they hope Buxton is able to return to everyday duties. The club’s plan to cut payroll this offseason makes a pursuit of top center field free agent Cody Bellinger impossible to imagine, though it’s at least plausible to imagine the club either re-signing Taylor or adding a similar piece like Kevin Kiermaier or Harrison Bader, who could easily play the position on a regular basis but wouldn’t necessarily demand everyday playing time. Of course, it’s possible even that sort of signing would cost-prohibitive without a trade of an veteran bat like Christian Vazquez, Jorge Polanco, Max Kepler or Kyle Farmer. In that case, the club could be relegated to lower-tier free agents such as Kevin Pillar or a trade candidate like Trent Grisham or Dylan Carlson.
Nightengale also references the club’s expected pursuits of help in the starting rotation and at first base this offseason, though the rotation comments come with an interesting change of pace. While past reports have indicated the Twins are expected to focus on adding depth to the club’s rotation, Nightengale suggests that adding a “front-line starter” is a goal for the Twins this offseason, suggesting they could look to do so through the trade market. Given the club’s deep positional group and financial incentive to deal from that group, it’s easy to see how a deal for a front-of-the-rotation arm could come together.
That being said, Nightengale cautions that the Twins are far from alone in their goal of trading for a front-end rotation piece this offseason. While each of Corbin Burnes, Dylan Cease, Shane Bieber, and Tyler Glasnow have seen their names floated on the rumor mill so far this offseason even more teams have been floated as potential suitors. The Dodgers, Braves, Cubs, Reds, Padres, Mets, Red Sox, and Cardinals are among the clubs who have been connected to at least one of the aforementioned quarter of available arms, and it’s unclear if the Twins will be willing to outbid that crowded field to replace Sonny Gray at the top of their rotation alongside Pablo Lopez.