Byron Buxton has missed so much playing time during his major league career it’s not out of bounds to wonder at age 29 how much longer he might play. The future of the gifted Buxton, who turns 30 in December, is certainly something Twins fans and media will ponder during the offseason.
Buxton and management are on record that he will return in 2024. That’s not surprising given how much emotionally Buxton and the club have invested in each other. His tantalizing skills make a difference in winning or losing games, and possibly even championships.
Buxton heads into the fall and winter with the familiar challenge of how best to prepare his body for another season. In 2023 he once again was unable to play in 100 games, a threshold achieved one time in his nine-year career. After August 1, he appeared in one game as a pinch hitter, popping up in Game 4 of last Wednesday’s American League Division Championship Series.
Buxton also missed the closing weeks of the 2022 season. He had surgery on his right knee last fall, but the knee was problematic again in 2023. A right hamstring injury took him out of the lineup in early August of this year.
The last three years Buxton has played in 61, 92 and 85 games. But there was something different in 2023. He never played in the field, with all his action as a DH and pinch hitter.
A healthy Buxton can carry a team with his bat, fielding and baserunning. But at 30 years old—with a history of injuries, a troublesome knee and perhaps additional physical issues unknown to the public confronting him—how does he launch a recovery plan that will result in at least limited but impactful performance including at the most meaningful times? Well, a lot about that plan isn’t known but one step was taken last Friday when Buxton had more surgery on his right knee.
If Buxton can contribute to the Twins’ success next season that’s welcomed by all. But it’s not like the club doesn’t have other options, even at DH. Does the team look to infielder Royce Lewis to become the regular center fielder, filling Buxton’s old spot? Gifted young hitter Edouard Julien may again find his playing time at second base blocked by veteran Jorge Polanco and instead could be the club’s most used DH.
Then, too, where does Brooks Lee fit? The impressive switch hitter is among early mentions for American League Rookie of the Year in 2024 but where does he play in the field? His experience has been mostly at shortstop and third base, but his athleticism likely would allow him to play the outfield and almost certainly first base.
Alex Kirilloff hasn’t seized the first base job and the Twins might consider a veteran offseason acquisition. Could Buxton play first on any regular basis? It’s another question in the jumbled land of speculation about what’s next for him.
A relatively healthy Buxton will be a contributor to the 26-man roster, but a struggling Buck is again problematic. This last season not only couldn’t he help the team in the field and on the bases, but his .207 average was the lowest for any season in which he had over 100 at bats. In 304 plate appearances he hit 17 home runs and drove in 42 runs but his scarcity of contact with the ball and strikeouts were issues.
The Twins made a seven-year $100 million commitment to the Georgia native in December of 2021. The club didn’t want to lose Buxton to free agency and paid him as much for his potential as his past performance. Presumably, the Twins have an insurance policy on that deal to pay Buxton the balance of his contract if he retires early.
Questions about Buxton’s future is enough to keep the more passionate of Twins’ fans awake at night. Sports Headliners took the “temperature” of some column readers and Twins fans with a mass email last week asking what they thought about Buxton and if he should retire. It was a small sampling sent out to more than 20 contacts, with not everyone responding, but the replies were interesting. Here’s part of what they said via email, with all but one person requesting anonymity. Messages have been edited for brevity, clarity, and style.
A leadoff comment from a Twins fan that is indicative of mixed feelings among fans: “If Buxton is unable to take the field, steal bases or hit over .200, then yes, he SHOULD retire. But if there’s still hope for some level of recovery (then) I’m not ready to pull the plug yet.”
Another fan wants goals established for Buxton in 2024. “One more year. If he can’t play in the outfield next year at least 50% of games, or DH in at least 80% of games, he should retire.”
Here’s someone else writing about urgency for Buxton: “The Twins now have four months to get whatever needs to be done to get him back at full (or close to full) strength. If he cannot do it in that time frame, the team has no choice but to trade or release him. The money does you no good if the guy cannot play.”
Another fan agrees Buxton and the Twins should part ways: “If they can get anything for him in a trade (unlikely), they should take it. If they can’t trade him, they should just let him go. He can’t stay healthy enough to stay on the field, and when he does play, he is of little value, hitting around .200 with an occasional long ball.”
A former journalist expressed empathy about the Buxton situation, describing it as “sad” for the player and fans: “We witnessed his incredible athletic ability only briefly. What a career it could have been! I think the Twins should bring him to spring training next year with the hope that he gets off to a good start. Then trade him to the highest bidder for young prominent pitching and a young/raw center fielder with promising potential. The Buxton experiment is over, and most Twins fans know it, where his constant injuries have become the punchline to a joke!”
A person with career experience in sports and entertainment wrote this: “Since Byron is set to make $15 million a year fully guaranteed through the 2028 season, I think it’s in the Twins’ best interest to keep him on the roster—yet go about their business assuming he won’t be much of a contributor. Anything they get from him should be considered a bonus. Byron’s talent has been betrayed by a body that doesn’t allow him to absorb the grind of a 162-game MLB season.”
Among readers who don’t want to see Buxton give up baseball is one who wrote this: “I don’t think he should retire at this time. Recall that he started last spring very well, but then was injured. He’s not old. I’m not optimistic, but he should certainly hang in there, continue to get medical treatment and try again.”
Twins fan and longtime season ticket buyer Kirk Detlefsen also wants Buxton to play on. “Retire, no way. He is still fast. He is still Gold Glove. Let him play every day (or 75% of the days) in the outfield. Being involved in the game (on the field), I would expect his batting average to go up close to 100 points. If he gets hurt, he gets hurt and he goes on the IL. No worse than if he had been at home watching the games on TV.”
Another column reader stressed that Buxton is entitled to his lucrative contract: “From what I know, he has done everything right and nothing wrong. Players get hurt, some a lot, and Buxton is one of them. That’s the way it goes for all teams, who know (ahead of time) the pros and cons of offering long-term contracts. If the player is doing his best both on the field and with rehab efforts, he is absolutely entitled to whatever the team agreed to pay him and there is no shame in that.”
Sending both an optimistic and cautionary message was an amateur baseball authority who wrote: “I think what makes Byron Buxton special is his ability to excel offensively and defensively. Without both sides of the game, he’s a very expensive player with significantly limited value. If he isn’t healthy enough to be a two-way player, retirement is an option Byron will need to consider. It’s my hope he comes back healthy, is able to play in the outfield, and still has several good years ahead!”