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Buxton question looms over center field for Twins

When he was healthy, Byron Buxton wowed his coaches and teammates on a daily basis.

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Minnesota Twins outfielder Byron Buxton hits a double off of Detroit Tigers relief pitcher Michael Fulmer during a Spet. 30, 2021, game at Target Field. The Twins tried to extend Buxton's contract ahead of the 2021 trade deadline, but were unable to come to an agreement. Buxton said he was keeping the door open to the possibility. Nick Wosika / USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS — Byron Buxton was putting up the kinds of numbers you only see in video games. Through an otherwise uninspiring month of April for the Twins, Buxton was having can’t-miss at-bats on a nightly basis.

In one game, the speedy 27-year-old went 5 for 5. In five others, he finished with three hits. There were 13 other multi-hit games in the month. He was named the American League’s Player of the Month for his efforts.

And then came the first injury.

It was a hip strain, and it kept him sidelined from early May to mid-June. Three days after returning, Buxton was hit on the left hand by a pitch, suffering a fracture that kept him out of major league action for more than two months.

Still, when he was healthy, Buxton wowed his coaches and teammates on a daily basis.

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“Obviously I didn’t play a lot of games, but for me, just being able to go out and swing the bat the way I did and know that’s the way that I can swing the bat, that sets me up for the offseason to try to not really go be different, but push me to be better,” Buxton said in early October.

2021 recap

Rob Refsnyder had just 14 professional games in center field. Kyle Garlick hadn’t played the position since college. Nick Gordon hadn’t been an outfielder since he was a preteen.

All three found themselves playing center field this season as the Twins kept seeing outfielders go down with injuries. In total, seven players manned the position for the Twins at one point or another.

All provided a steep drop off both offensively and defensively from Buxton, who paired Gold Glove-caliber defense with the best offensive season of his career — albeit in just 61 games.

Buxton hit .306 with a .358 on-base percentage and .647 slugging percentage in those 61 games. He finished the year with a 1.005 OPS and 171 OPS+.

And even though he was sidelined by the two injuries, Buxton posted a 4.5 WAR, per Baseball Reference, which was second on the team to Jorge Polanco, who played 91 more games than him.

After Buxton, Gordon, a middle infielder by trade, wound up seeing the most action out in center for the Twins. Refsnyder, Jake Cave, Max Kepler, rookie Gilberto Celestino and Garlick, all wound up out there during the season, too.

2022 outlook

The Twins made a run at trying to extend Buxton in July, but they were unable to come to a deal. Could they try again this offseason? And might they deal their superstar center fielder if they can’t reach an agreement?

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Buxton has one more year left on his contract and if the Twins are convinced that they will not be able to retain him after that, they’ll have to make a difficult decision — Deal him in the offseason when his value is highest, deal him at the deadline if they are not contending or hang onto him through next season if they are.

One thing the Twins have to take into account when considering locking in Buxton to a mammoth new contract is his history of injuries. In his seven seasons with the Twins, he has played more than 100 games just once, and that was when he played 141 in 2017. His seven-year average of games per season is 70, not that far from the few games he played in 2021,

Still, nobody currently on the roster could really step in and be their full-time center fielder if Buxton were to be traded.

While Celestino is the club’s No. 15 prospect per Baseball America, he was rushed to the majors out of necessity in 2021 and it was clear he needs more minor-league seasoning.

Austin Martin, one of the club’s top prospects, split time in 2021 in center field and shortstop. He wouldn’t be ready to step in yet either, having spent all of this season at Double-A, but could be an option there down the road.

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Minnesota Twins outfielder Byron Buxton celebrates his run against the Detroit Tigers in the third inning Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021, at Target Field in Minneapolis. Brad Rempel / USA Today Sports

Related Topics: BASEBALLMINNESOTA TWINS
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