Saturday was Sept. 1, which means teams are now allowed to expand their active roster from 25 players all the way up to 40 players, if they choose. Every team calls up reinforcements in September, even if they're only a few extra relievers and bench players.
Among the players not getting called up this month: Twins center fielder Byron Buxton. It has been a brutal season for Buxton, who hit .156/.183/.200 in 28 big-league games around toe and wrist injuries, and .264/.322/.443 in 36 Triple-A games after being demoted. All told, Buxton has only 246 plate appearances in 2018.
Rather than call him up and get him more at-bats in September, the Twins will send Buxton home after the Triple-A season ends Monday. According to Mike Berardino of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Twins GM Thad Levine listed three reasons for Buxton not being called up in September:
- The wrist injury is "still lingering."
- His Triple-A performance hasn't been good enough beyond the raw stats.
- There's not enough playing time available in the big leagues.
Buxton's strikeout rate (28.4 percent), swing-and-miss rate (15.0 percent), and pull rate (59.8 percent) in his 152 Triple-A plate appearances are all much higher than you'd like, which is presumably what Levine was referring to when he said Buxton's minor league performance wasn't as good as the triple-slash line would lead you to believe.
If the wrist injury is still lingering, it's not bad enough to send Buxton for more tests, according to Berardino. And as for playing time, well teams can always create playing time for young outfielders. Eddie Rosario went down with a quad injury recently, plus Robbie Grossman and waiver claim Johnny Field have started games in the outfield recently. If the Twins wanted to make playing time for Buxton, they could, for sure.
Levine's reasons for keeping Buxton down are just plausible enough to hide the team's true intention: Service time manipulation. Not giving Buxton a September call-up delays his free agency from the 2021-22 offseason to the 2022-23 offseason. The Twins would be gaining control of Buxton's age 28 season in 2022, which very well might be a peak year. Buxton has had an up-and-down career to date, no doubt, but he is supremely talented and could be an All-Star caliber performer in 2022.
As poorly as this season has gone, Buxton was a 5 WAR player last year, and he hit .300/.347/.546 in what appeared to be a breakout second half. He also played hurt through the toe injury earlier this year when the Twins were short on outfielders. Now he's not getting a September call-up and his free agency is being delayed. Understandably, Buxton and his agent are not happy. From Berardino:
"Needless to say, neither the agent nor the player were happy to hear this information, and I think for all the right reasons," Levine said. "We totally respect and understand their position in these instances."
"I think part of our jobs is we're supposed to be responsible to factoring service time into every decision we make," Levine said. "I still feel pretty resolute in saying that the other three factors were more present for us in this decision-making process than that. We wouldn't be doing our jobs if we weren't at least aware of service-time impacts on decisions we make."
"Their recourse has not been laid out to us," Levine said. "They're certainly entitled to whatever they think is in the best interest of Byron Buxton. From this day forward, I think we recognize a responsibility to make amends and that we're going to need to invest in the relationship with Byron Buxton. We understand this is a blow to the player, a potential blow to the relationship."
That is about as close as a team executive will get to admitting the team is manipulating a player's service time. Buxton can file a grievance claiming service time manipulation, and, if he were to win, he would be retroactively credited with service time for September, thus moving his free agency back up to the 2021-22 offseason.
Other teams decline to call up players in September for service time reasons -- White Sox outfielder Eloy Jimenez and Blue Jays third baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr., arguably the two best prospects in the minors, aren't being called up this month for service time reasons -- but it's not often a player like Buxton winds up back in Triple-A during the summer and doesn't get a September call-up. This reeks of service time manipulation. The baseball reasons laid out don't seem to pass the sniff test.
This has no doubt been a disappointing season for both Buxton and the Twins. He's been hurt and ineffective and the team is 63-72, bad enough that they traded away some veterans at the deadline. Rather than give Buxton as many at-bats as possible in September to make up for lost time, the team will not call him up so they can gain control of his 2022 season, four years down the road. Don't be surprised if the Twins and Buxton wind up in front of a mediator this offseason.