Up to this point, Byron Buxton has shown he can catch anything. Except a break.
A major-league career that's been characterized by setbacks and shutdowns was on track to open with another one in 2020, as the center fielder had been expected to miss the start of the season, but now fortune has finally turned in Buxton's favor.
Buxton was behind the pack in spring training 1.0, ramping up slowly as he finished rehabbing from offseason shoulder surgery. Opening Day 1.0 seemed an unlikely target.
Incidentally, he also got a late start to spring training 2.0, albeit for a very different reason. Buxton's repaired shoulder is now fully healed, but his arrival in Summer Camp was delayed slightly by the arrival of he and wife Linday's (amazingly-named) second son.
With little time lost, Buxton landed in camp this week, passing his COVID test and taking the field Tuesday for drills and batting practice. On Twitter, The Athletic's Dan Hayes provided dubious photographic evidence of this fact, along with some more convincing BP video.
It's no secret that injuries have plagued the 26-year-old in an MLB career that started in 2015, but has seen him appear in 100 games only once. While he had his troubles adapting to big-league stuff, rotten luck has mostly been at the root of Buxton's failure to put together a full quality campaign.
One thing he HAS proven he can do, however, is play at an elite level over a 60-game span.
He did so last year, playing in 57 of Minnesota's first 60 games and slashing .262/.318/.519 with 20 doubles, seven homers and three triples. Through that point, he ranked 16th among American Leaguers in fWAR.
Of course, the injury bug bit soon after, and Buxton went on to start just 24 of the team's remaining 102 games. But those first 60 showed what the superstar talent is capable of, and it wasn't even the height of his potential. We've seen him better.
Let's turn the clock back a little further – skipping over a 2018 campaign that was an unmitigated disaster for Buxton – and rewind to 2017. Here we find the closest thing to a complete season representative of his true ability. He played in 140 games, slashed .253/.314/.413 with 16 home runs and 29 steals, and earned the Platinum Glove as MLB's most valuable defender.
His overall numbers for the '17 season were dragged down by immense early struggles. It was in the latter months, as Minnesota raced to an unlikely wild-card berth, that Buxton's game-changing ability truly emerged.
He started 55 of the team's final 60 games that year, slashing .298/.342/.541 with 11 homers. He also went 13-for-13 on steals, which means you can inflate that slugging percentage for all intents and purposes. During this two-month stretch Buxton ranked sixth in the American League in fWAR, behind only:
- Josh Donaldson
- Brian Dozier
- Mike Trout
- Francisco Lindor
- Aaron Judge
Buxton's ability to make a seismic impact over 60 games is not theoretical. He's done it twice in the past two-and-a-half seasons. Staying on the field for much longer than 60 games in a row has been the issue, but for once, he's not staring down the rigors of a 162-game marathon. More importantly, Buxton is truly at the crest of his physical prime, fully healthy by all accounts.
This is a perfect opportunity for his stardom to truly blossom. In an unprecedented sprint of a season, it helps to have the fastest runner in baseball.
Of course, the flip side of all this is easy enough to see. A shortened schedule also means that any incident for Buxton – another collision with an outfield wall, or a jammed wrist sliding into second – would cost him a huge portion of his season. That's a tough reality. But it's frankly one we've all grown accustomed to, and one the Twins are exceptionally well prepared for, with Max Kepler able to man center and plentiful depth at the corners.
The Twins can be one of the best teams in baseball without Byron Buxton. But if he can hit his stride over these 60 games, his as-yet-untapped upside could catapult them to rarified air.
We've all learned better than to take that for granted. But right now, the stars are aligned for his star to shine.
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