The oft-injured superstar will be expensive, but worth it
Through the first seventeen games of the season, Byron Buxton is hitting .438 with an OPS close to 1.5. He feels confident, he looks confident and the Twins would be talking about the Nelson Cruz trade market without him. With a strangely low amount of fanfare, he has established himself as the most exciting player in the game.
It’s been quite a rise since the pandemic began for Buxton—At the end of 2019 he was facing serious shoulder surgery and had shown himself to be, when healthy, a defensive specialist who could eke out an .800 OPS. Provided he got hot at the right time, his production would fall somewhere between Jason Heyward and Peter Bourjos.
But now Buxton has found his snarl—he is no longer afraid of the pitcher, the pitcher fears him. His speed is no longer an “if he only get could use it more” but a “Jesus Christ and he’s fast, too?” A power speed combination like Buxton hasn’t existed since Bo Jackson, young A-Rod, or maybe Erik Davis.
But if he now profiles as an obviously better player than Heyward, who earned a 184M contract prior to the 2016 season, he’s gonna be expensive. His free agency will come much later in his career than the long-time Cub, but Buxton plays a more difficult position at the highest level in the game outside of maybe Kevin Kiermaier. He’s blazingly fast and the last time he faced a league that was afraid of him was in A ball when his strikeout to walk ratio was considered a strength.
He’s a smart, gritty player and is the only player the Twins have where you can seriously ask, “Could he be the guy who delivers championships to Minnesota?” There have been two men to do that in Walter Johnson and Kirby Puckett- both generational players. Rod Carew and Joe Mauer fell short, but Byron would seem to have the talent.
He’s a heavy sparkplug who any team would take in three seconds. He plays hard and doesn’t make too many mistakes, especially since he now doesn’t chase sliders off the plate. Buxton is also prone to injury, having landed on the IL a dozen times, for issues like serious shoulder surgery and concussions. But his legs are usually ok and he hasn’t had a wall related injury since the one that ended his 2019 on one of the bitterest notes in Twins history. Can he hold up? If he can, then can the Twins keep him?
He’s not as good as what he is now, not even a month into the season. But he’s also better than he’s ever been- which is either last year when he was a less patient Andre Dawson, or 2019 when he was a fast Juan Encarnacion. Where do you even start the bidding when he is up for free agency at the end of 2022, George Springer’s 150M? Heyward’s 184M? You also worry that the Twins are being cheap and offering what Buxton’s predecessor, Aaron Hicks, got from the Yankees at seven years, 70M. I just have to keep reminding myself that Terry Ryan can’t hurt me anymore.
On a swept-under-the-rug note, Buxton expressed frustration with the Twins in 2018 when the front office manipulated his service time by not calling him up in September, despite being healthy. It is fair to wonder if, at that moment, Buxton decided to never sign with the Twins long-term. He is probably and rightfully daydreaming about his free agency case- if he finishes the season with 135 games played, his usual elite defense and a .900 OPS, and repeats anything close to that next year, it’s fair to think his asking price would exceed 300M easily. But then again, he has only played one healthy season thus far and would be going into his age 29 season.
So what kind of extension would be fair? Offering him 300M would be silly considering you would then be assuming Buxton does for 1.9 years what he has never done before. Offering him 100M would be an insult as Buxton was compared to Mike Trout as a prospect, never stopped oozing talent, and for seventeen games, has been Mike Trout (but with better defense).
I think the fair thing to do is meet right in the middle and go for 200M. It beats Heyward’s albatross but also Mauer’s 184M for the richest contract in Twins history. If it’s seven years, that gives Buxton an AAV of 28.5M- elite but not quite what the superstars are getting lately. More than Paul Goldschmidt and Jacob DeGrom, but less than Manny Machado and Justin Verlander.
Beyond what Buxton brings to the lineup and centerfield is a true superstar quality. Even if he starts slumping tomorrow and ends up slashing .250/.320/.500 for the year, his ability to have bursts like this set him apart from anyone else the Twins have, pitchers or hitters, and would still be worth 28.5M annually. Max Kepler and Luis Arraez and Jose Berrios will be solid contributors and may even end up as All-Stars this year, but none of them can do what Buxton does. The Twins are a team of above average guys (who are currently playing well below that) and if the Twins don’t want to end up like the 2012 A’s (Tommy Milone was the ace, Josh Reddick was their #1 bat for a first place team), then they need Buxton to be around a while, particularly with Donaldson and Cruz fighting father time and Royce Lewis being a bundle of question marks.
Perhaps I am bitter about what the pandemic has done to Buxton’s trajectory. Instead of three years of super-Buxton, we get 2021, and if no extension is agreed to, that will be it, with Buxton gone the way of Francisco Lindor. Baseball history is littered with guys who bust out at age 27. It’s also littered with guys who get traded at age 28 and make their original teams pay for decades to come. If I was the Falvine front office, I would wait for Buxton to have a bad week and throw that 200M at him. There may never be a better investment.