Byron Buxton is currently on the injured list due to a fractured hand, but the Twins have given him something to think about while he mends. Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic reports that Minnesota is hoping to sign Buxton long-term and recently offered him a deal that guarantees him more than $70MM and also includes escalators and incentives — presumably based on health and days spent on the active roster.
Now 27 years old, Buxton was the No. 2 overall draft pick back in 2012 and at various points topped prospect rankings at Baseball America, MLB.com, Baseball Prospectus and ESPN. There were some early growing pains at the plate as Buxton struggled with strikeouts and was unable to tap into his considerable raw power, but in recent years he’s shown the all-around talent that made such a high draft pick and such a vaunted prospect.
Dating back to 2019, Buxton has batted .282/.322/.581 with 33 home runs, 44 doubles, four triples and 21 stolen bases (in 25 attempts). That includes an otherworldly showing so far in 2021, when he’s slashed .369/.409/.767 with 10 home runs and 11 doubles in just 110 plate appearances. Given that Buxton is arguably the best defensive player in baseball, regardless of position, that production at the plate makes him one of baseball’s most valuable players on a per-game basis.
The problem for Buxton, of course, has been staying on the field. That outstanding 2019-21 output came over a sample of just 540 plate appearances, thanks to a barrage of injuries. Some have been fluky in nature — his current injury came when he was hit by a pitch; his 2018 fractured toe happened when he fouled a ball into his foot — but as Rosenthal points out, Buxton has made 11 career trips to the injured list. That number doesn’t even include a quartet of minor league IL placements for various injuries, including a pair of left wrist strains.
There isn’t one nagging injury that continues to hamper Buxton, which is both encouraging and frustrating at the same time. He’s dealt with migraines and concussion symptoms after all-out plays in the outfield, a partially torn a ligament in his thumb while sliding into the bag on a stolen base, surgery to repair the labrum in his left shoulder, and also landed on the IL due to a variety of strains and sprains over the years.
Because of that litany of injuries, Buxton is one of the toughest players in baseball to assess from a contractual standpoint. The aforementioned .282/.322/.581, 33-homer, 44-double output came in a span of 153 games — roughly one full season’s worth of play. Very few players could put together a stretch that impressive over a full season — and certainly not with comparable defensive value — but Buxton has only played 100 games in a Major League season on one occasion. It’s easy to argue that even a half season of Buxton is worth $10MM-plus, but it’s also understandable if the Twins are reluctant with the extent of their guarantee.
One piece of context that ought to be addressed when looking at any potential extension for Buxton is service time. He’ll be a free agent after the 2022 season and is arbitration-eligible for the final time this winter, but that’s due largely to the fact that Buxton wasn’t given a September call-up back in 2018.
Buxton landed on the Major League injured list early in 2018 with what was hoped to be a minimal stay due to migraine issues, but he fouled a ball into his foot during a rehab assignment and suffered a hairline fracture. He attempted to play through the injury at the MLB level but had perhaps the worst three-week stretch of his career while doing so. Buxton was eventually placed back the IL and, upon being activated, was optioned to Triple-A. He then incurred the aforementioned wrist strains, further prolonging his stay in the minors.
Buxton returned from the minor league IL to hit .356/.400/.596 in 12 games down the stretch with Triple-A Rochester, but he wasn’t included among the Twins’ September call-ups. That omission kept Buxton from crossing the threshold from two years of MLB service to three years and pushed his path to free agency back by a year.
GM Thad Levine acknowledged at the time (link via The Athletic) that Buxton’s representatives at Jet Sports Management were “displeased” and “disappointed” with the decision. Buxton himself told the Minneapolis Star Tribune the following December that his omission from the team’s collection of September call-ups “didn’t go over well,” though he later added that he still hoped to spend his entire career with the Twins organization.
The Twins did give Buxton a healthy raise for a Super Two player coming off an injury-decimated season that winter ($1.75MM), but it’s hard to imagine that the September 2018 issue wouldn’t resurface to some extent during present-day extension talks. That doesn’t mean a deal can’t be worked out, of course. It merely adds another layer to what already figured to be an immensely complex set of negotiations.
There aren’t many recent examples of a center fielder with five-plus years of big league service time forgoing free agency and signing an extension, although Aaron Hicks and Charlie Blackmon do serve as potential points of reference. Hicks signed a seven-year, $70MM contract in the spring of 2019 (six years, $64MM of new money). Blackmon signed a six-year, $108MM contract just after Opening Day 2018 (five years, $94MM in new money). Both had five-plus years of service time at the time of their extensions, as Buxton does now, but both were considerably older than Buxton is now. Buxton is also further from the open market at present by virtue of the fact that he’s negotiating midseason rather than during Spring Training of his walk year. Hicks and Blackmon could very well be talking points raised during discussions, but those data points are far from direct parallels.
Notably, Rosenthal suggests there’s a chance the Twins could trade Buxton if the two parties can’t come to terms on a contract extension, though such a move would seem likelier in the offseason than when Buxton is on the injured list with a broken hand. That’s something of a surprise in and of itself, as even in spite of their poor 2021 showing, the Twins have a promising young core of controllable hitters and ample payroll flexibility to reload their pitching staff this offseason. There’s no indication that the Twins are gearing up for a lengthy rebuilding effort, and it’d be hard for them to simultaneously trade Buxton prior to Opening Day 2022 and still claim to be aiming to contend next year.