In more ways than one, 2021 was a worst-case scenario kind of season for the Minnesota Twins. They started out horribly, losing 28 of their first 42 games, quickly pushing them out of the postseason race. The Twins reacted by trading away Nelson Cruz and José Berríos at the deadline. Then, to pour salt in the wound, Kenta Maeda needed Tommy John surgery in September.
Center fielder Byron Buxton was one of the few bright spots for the 2021 Twins, at least when he was on the field. Hip and hand injuries limited Buxton to only 61 games, but in those 61 games he played at an MVP level: .306/.358/.647 with 19 home runs and nine stolen bases. Add in the defense and Buxton was a 4.5-WAR player in a little more than one-third of a season.
The Twins are rapidly approaching (or may have already reached) the point where they have to make a decision with Buxton. He is one year away from free agency and, realistically, they have three options with him:
- Sign him to a long-term contract.
- Trade him this offseason for maximum value.
- Trade him at the deadline for a lower value.
Keeping Buxton all season and then letting him walk next offseason is not something the Twins should do. It's a non-option. You can't let your most talented player leave for nothing but a dinky draft pick. Either sign him long-term or trade him, and the sooner you trade him, the more you'll get in return (and the less likely it is he gets hurt again and loses trade value).
"It's not like something that has snuck up on us at this point," Twins president of baseball operations Derek Falvey told reporters, including The Athletic's Dan Hayes and Ken Rosenthal, at the GM Meetings earlier this month. "... As is always the case, this isn't unique to Byron or otherwise, there are people on our team that are interesting to other clubs and we just always need to work through what does that look like, what does our team look like as we navigate it."
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Buxton told Hayes and Rosenthal he's fine playing out 2022 on a one-year arbitration contract -- "There's no rush," he said when asked about a potential long-term contract -- which MLB Trade Rumors projects to be in the $7.3 million range. Valuing Buxton on a long-term contract is difficult given his immense production and injury history, though that's an obstacle, not a dealbreaker.
We ranked Buxton as one of the offseason's top trade candidates because he is entering his walk year, and because the Twins are not one or two pieces away from contending, even in the winnable AL Central. Besides, Falvey & Co. would not be doing their jobs if they didn't at least gauge trade interest in Buxton. It doesn't hurt to listen. Here are some potential landing spots.
The best fit: Astros
Once upon a time the Astros selected Carlos Correa over Buxton with the No. 1 pick in the 2012 draft (the Twins then took Buxton with the No. 2 pick). Could they now look to Buxton to help replace Correa? Obviously they play different positions, but center field can be upgraded in Houston, and Buxton can replace Correa in the lineup. He'd also bring elite speed and baserunning.
Keep in mind the Astros are so confident in their current center field options (Chas McCormick, Jake Meyers, and Jose Siri) that they traded Myles Straw at the deadline. That's all well and good, but Buxton is better than those guys and a legitimate difference-maker. And, if Buxton does get hurt at some point, the Astros are right back where they started in center.
The perfect-world scenario would be trading for Buxton and re-signing Correa, in which case the Astros could send this juggernaut lineup out to the field most nights:
- CF Byron Buxton
- 2B Jose Altuve
- LF Michael Brantley
- SS Carlos Correa
- DH Yordan Alvarez
- 3B Alex Bregman
- 1B Yuli Gurriel
- RF Kyle Tucker
- C Martín Maldonado
Sheesh. The Astros led baseball in runs per game this season even though Bregman missed much of the year with a quad injury. In the postseason though, the bottom of the lineup got exposed a bit. Opposing pitchers had a soft landing spot at the Nos. 8 and 9 spots with the center fielder du jour and Maldonado. Buxton would help eliminate that. He's an ideal fit for Houston.
The other great fit: Phillies
As noted earlier this week, Phillies outfielders not named Bryce Harper hit. 230/.295/.398 in nearly 1,600 plate appearances this past season, and they were poor defensively as well. Philadelphia has needs in center and left fields, and while Buxton is only one man, it does sometimes feel he is playing two outfield positions given his speed and seemingly limitless range.
Three years ago the Phillies traded for JT Realmuto when he had two years of team control remaining, and they made it no secret they wanted to sign him long-term. They could do the same with Buxton. Trade for him and his one year of team control, then sign him to a long-term contract either right away or after the season. Clearly though, Buxton is a great fit for the 2022 Phillies.
(What about a Buxton/Josh Donaldson package deal for the Phillies? Alec Bohm might be destined to play left field long-term and taking on the two years and $50 million remaining on Donaldson's contract should lower the prospect asking price for Buxton. It could work for the Phillies.)
In all seriousness, the Mets and Yankees are both potential landing spots for Buxton. Michael Conforto and Kevin Pillar are free agents, leaving the Mets with a left fielder in center (Brandon Nimmo), a first baseman in left (Dominic Smith), and a second baseman in right (Jeff McNeil). Buxton is an obvious fit and a substantial upgrade defensively.
As for the Yankees, they're said to be monitoring the center field market with Aaron Hicks on the mend following wrist surgery. Hicks and Buxton both have issues staying healthy, and maybe they'll be able to help keep each other on the field? Rather than play one guy every single game, the Yankees could spread the workload around and use both Hicks and Buxton regularly in center. Maybe?
They could make it work: Giants
The Giants have more good players than roster spots and their current 2022 outfield is set to include Steven Duggar, Austin Slater, LaMonte Wade Jr., and Mike Yastrzemski. Mauricio Dubón, Austin Dean, and top prospect Heliot Ramos could be in the mix as well. Center field is not a top priority. President of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi is not one to rest on his laurels, however.
Maybe moreso than any other team, San Francisco is uniquely positioned to bring in Buxton, and give him regular rest in an effort to avoid injuries. It could be that Buxton will never be a 150 games a year player, and 120 games is the more reasonable target. In that case, the Giants have enough quality players to cover the games Buxton doesn't play. Plus his defense and spacious Oracle Park are a match made in baseball heaven.
These two clubs started to transition from rebuilder to contender in 2021 and are poised to spend this offseason (the Tigers have already signed Eduardo Rodriguez). Intradivision trades can be tricky, but if Detroit can pry Buxton loose, they could look to sign him long-term and make him a centerpiece. He turns only 28 next month. He fits their timetable. Consider the possibilities:
- CF Byron Buxton
- RF Riley Greene (top prospect)
- SS top free agent?
- DH Miguel Cabrera
- 1B Spencer Torkelson (top prospect)
- LF Robbie Grossman
- 2B Jonathan Schoop
- 3B Jeimer Candelario
- C Tucker Barnhart
That lineup could happen next season. Not 2-3 years down the line. It could be a reality in 2021. Detroit is rumored to be in on all the top free agent shortstops (Correa would be ideal and they have the A.J. Hinch connection going for them), so add one of those guys and Buxton, and you've imported two elite in-his-prime talents at up-the-middle positions in one offseason. I'm not sure the Twins will trade Buxton within the division, but gosh, he'd be a great fit for the Tigers.
For the Mariners, they have more outfielders than roster spots, but only in theory. Mitch Haniger is a year away from free agency, Kyle Lewis missed most of 2020 with injuries, top prospect Jarred Kelenic mostly struggled during his MLB debut, and fellow top prospect Julio Rodríguez has yet to play above Double-A. You don't have to try hard to see Buxton fitting in 2022 and beyond. He would be a fine target for the up-and-coming Mariners.
Wild card: Marlins
There is a recent history of the Marlins trading for a top-notch center fielder with short-term control. Two years ago they brought in Starling Marte at the deadline, tried to sign him long-term, then flipped him for prospects at this year's deadline while enjoying 92 games of All-Star caliber production in the interim. Could Miami try a similar approach with Buxton? Hey, why not?
The Marlins have pitching with even more on the way. They need offense to make the jump from rebuilder to contender, and in Bryan De La Cruz and Jesús Sánchez, they appear to have two outfield keepers. Lewis Brinson just isn't working out though, and Buxton would give Miami a top center fielder to either build around or flip later for prospects. It's not crazy. They did it with Marte.
Just keep him: Twins
I understand any hesitation to sign Buxton long-term given his injuries. The injuries will be baked into the cake though -- Buxton is a $200 million dollar player on raw talent but figures to sign for considerably less because of the injuries -- and when you have a great homegrown player at a premium position, you should try to keep him. The Twins really won't trade Buxton and Berríos, will they?
Minnesota's outfield of the future figures to include some combination of Gilberto Celestino, Max Kepler (if he's not traded), Alex Kirilloff, Trevor Larnach, and maybe even former No. 1 pick Royce Lewis. That's fine, but none of those guys can impact a game like Buxton. Keeping and signing him long-term is not just defensible. It's something the Twins should actively pursue. Trade Buxton and you'll spend the next 10 years trying to find another talent like him.