You've heard it before: This might be the year that Byron Buxton puts it all together.
Buxton is arguably Minnesota's most important piece of the puzzle in 2020. The Twins' centerfielder has had issues staying healthy throughout his five seasons in the majors, but his impact on the field is one that can take a good Twins roster and turn it into one that is a threat for the American League pennant.
A breakout at the plate
To measure Buxton's impact, we start with what he did at the plate in 2019. In his first four seasons with the Twins, Buxton's offensive output was minimal and as one of the top prospects in the game, fans were growing impatient with his slow progression.
A lot of those issues came from inexperience as a 21-year-old coming up to a weak Twins squad that left him zero lineup protection and an approach that had him swinging at anything close to the plate. That struggle raged on for several seasons as Buxton spent time on the injury list and shuttled back and forth between Triple-A Rochester and Minneapolis.
But the lightbulb came on last spring despite coming off a season that was completely derailed due to a toe injury. Buxton hit .410 with four home runs and 15 RBI in the Grapefruit League and while most of the time those stats are more fodder for talk radio, it was a precursor of what was about to happen in the regular season.
While the .410 average didn't hold up, a lot of Buxton's progress translated. His 28.9% whiff rate and 23.1% strikeout rate were career-lows, according to Statcast, and he finally showed a sense of power to go with his speed, slugging a career-high .513 and leading the American League in doubles with 30 at the time of his season-ending injury on Aug. 2.
Some may point to Buxton's 10 home runs as a sign of him turning plenty of singles into doubles with a sprint speed that ranked third in MLB last season, but that might be because he wasn't getting too many good pitches to hit. Only 6.1% of the pitches Buxton saw were what Statcast considered "meatballs" and yet Buxton still had a career-high exit velocity (89.3 mph).
In fact, Buxton's ability to get the barrel of the bat on the ball was one of his keys to success as he logged an 8.3% barrel rate and put 33% of his contact on the sweet spot.
For a lineup that is filled with power, there's a chance that Buxton will see more pitches to hit this season. With Buxton slated to be in the nine-hole and a combination of Max Kepler and Luis Arraez, who both broke out in 2019, in the leadoff spot, the numbers that Buxton put up last summer could be the tip of the iceberg for a 26-year-old beginning to figure things out.
Can Buxton improve defensively?
This question seems ridiculous when you consider that Buxton owns a Platinum Glove and finished fifth among MLB outfielders with 12 outs above average. However, a lot of the highlight-reel plays that have cost Buxton games could have been more routine if he refined some of the basics.
At the root of Buxton's success in the field are his speed and athletic ability. As mentioned, speed was tops among centerfielders last season, but it also masked his ability to get a good jump on the ball where he ranked in the 55th percentile.
Because of his poor routes on balls, Buxton has been forced to run into walls or make unnecessary dives which in some cases have resulted in him landing on the injured list. That becomes a problem for the Twins considering how much of an impact he has on their defense.
The Twins rotation fell apart shortly after Buxton went on the shelf for good with a torn labrum and it was no coincidence with the outfield having to be patched on the fly. Kepler moved from right field to center field while Marwin Gonzalez, Eddie Rosario and even Arraez had to spend time in right field to adjust.
The result was a negative spike in the Twins pitching numbers and as Jose Berrios fell apart, so too did the rest of the staff, which had to dig deep to find someone that could minimize the reliance on the outfielders to record outs.
This has caused a shift in philosophy in Buxton's offseason regimen, which went from adding 15 pounds of muscle to absorb the punishment prior to the 2019 season to pledging to be more conservative in 2020. If he's able to get better jumps, he should still be able to make plays on the ball, but it won't have the force of getting hit by a truck.
What effect could Buxton have on 2020?
The biggest question surrounding Buxton right now is the health of his shoulder. Earlier this week, MLB.com's Do-Hyoung Park and The Athletic's Aaron Gleeman both confirmed that Buxton began hitting off a tee and will graduate to soft toss next week as part of his rehab from a torn labrum.
The Twins would like to have Buxton ready for Opening Day, but they should also be willing to take it slow with a player that could be the key to their season. It appears that message has also reached Buxton, who had a different tone with MLB Network's Peter Gammons, which should be music to the Twins' ears after going 62-25 when he played last season.
"I watched a lot of video this offseason to try and switch up a little bit of things," Buxton said. "I'm ready. I'm going to play my game a little bit smarter and a little more conservative."
A lot has been made about Buxton's inability to stay healthy, but the thing about injury-prone players is that they don't shed that label until they stop getting hurt. In these situations, it's best to think of what a player could be if they're able to stay healthy.
In a landscape where Juan Soto, Kris Bryant and other high-level prospects have had seamless transitions to the major-league level, it's easy for fans to get frustrated with Buxton's journey to get to this point. But if he's able to log a full season, the Twins could not only have a budding superstar on their hands, but a key piece for a playoff run.