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Not again: Twins center fielder Byron Buxton carted off field after injuring left foot

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Minnesota Twins manager Rocco Baldelli, left and coach Tony Diaz, second from left, watch as assistant athletic trainer Matt Biancuzzo, second from right, steadies the ankle of Byron Buxton, center, who stumbled in an intrasquad game at a baseball camp Monday, July 13, 2020, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn)

Center fielder Byron Buxton arrived for the Twins’ summer camp last week at Target Field hoping to put his injury history behind him and play an important role in the team’s 60-game season that has been shortened by the coronavirus pandemic.

Buxton had made seven trips to the injured list over the past two years, most recently suffering a season-ending torn labrum in his left shoulder last August. “I’m 100 hundred percent,” he said. “(The additional break) gave me that time to fully get (the shoulder) healed, get it the way I wanted to and I’ve got no limits. I’m back to being myself and going out there and playing the game the right way.”

Unfortunately, the injury bug appeared to strike Buxton again on Monday night, 11 days before the Twins are set to open the season against the White Sox in Chicago. Buxton suffered what the Twins described as a left foot injury when he went down while chasing a Nelson Cruz fly ball in right-center. He was removed from the field on a cart after being examined and it’s uncertain how long he might be out.

“We took Byron inside to get looked at by the medical staff,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said after Monday’s intrasquad game. “Fortunately, relatively speaking, the initial once over didn’t show anything, which I think we can take as a cautiously optimistic good sign. But we’re going to go ahead and do a lot of other assessments and imaging tonight and tomorrow just to see what we can find and go from there. That’s probably what you’re hoping to see, but we also know that anytime a guy is coming off the field, we want to make sure he’s not walking off the field, we’re going to make sure we get him a full look-over by the medical staff.”

Buxton tore the labrum in his shoulder last Aug. 1 while crashing into a wall in Miami and eventually underwent surgery. Buxton also missed 13 games last June after being hit on the right wrist by a pitch and 10 more games after suffering a concussion in mid-July in Cleveland when he dived to make a catch.

He was being brought along slowly in spring training this year, but the stoppage caused by the pandemic gave him more time to heal. Buxton had talked since the spring about altering his approach to going into outfield walls and his plan to jump off two feet instead of one to lessen the chance for violent collisions. But what happened Monday had nothing to do with the wall at Target Field.

“Buck does everything right,” Baldelli said. “Buck handles his preparation, he does everything right on the field. He plays the game exactly the way you would hope that one of your young stars would play the game. That’s who he is. Because of that all of his teammates feed off of him. He’s a favorite in that clubhouse because of the way he plays. He didn’t do anything wrong out there today, it was just a misstep out there in the outfield and that’s really the only way that I would describe it. There are guys, because of their athleticism and the way they play the game, they are going to be more at risk for different things. But today was just kind of an off-chance misstep.”

Buxton hit .262 with 30 doubles, four triples, 10 homers, 46 RBIs and 14 stolen bases in 87 games last season. He won a Gold Glove in 2017 as he played in 140 games. That’s the only year in which he has played in more than 92 games in five big-league seasons.

If the injury forces Buxton to miss significant time, the Twins have a number of different options. They could employ the same strategy they used last year, shifting Max Kepler from right field to center field and using a combination of Marwin Gonzalez, Jake Cave, and LaMonte Wade to replace Kepler in right. Cave and Wade are also capable of playing in center. None of those players, of course, are nearly as good defensively as Buxton, who won a Platinum Glove in 2017.

Another option is outfielder Lane Adams, whom the Twins signed to a minor league deal in the offseason and is part of Minnesota’s player pool in the Twin Cities. Adams, who has played 117 games total over three seasons in the big leagues, can play all three defensive positions. He has very good speed, swiping 245 bases in the minor leagues and 11 more (in 11 attempts) in the Majors. Adams likely isn’t an everyday player, however. If the Twins added him, it would probably be in a short-term role as a bench player.

In terms of prospects, the only outfielder on the 40-man roster is Gilberto Celestino. Celestino is a natural center fielder and a good prospect, but hasn’t seen time above High-A, meaning he’s unlikely to crack the big leagues this year.

The Twins could opt to add one of Brent Rooker, Alex Kirilloff, or Trevor Larnach to the 40-man, who are all highly-ranked corner outfield prospects. Most consider Kirilloff the best of the bunch at this point, but Rooker is the only one with Triple-A experience, so he’d probably be first in line for a call-up. If Buxton were forced to miss time, the Twins might gamble and put a prospect in the lineup as an everyday player, but the more likely scenario is patching it together with Cave, Wade, and possibly Adams, at least to begin the season. Those players can’t replicate Buxton’s production, but they are solid depth pieces with major league experience.

“We’re at our best with Buck. That’s a very easy statement to make,” Baldelli said. “But we also know that we’re going to have many guys step up over the course of this shortened season. We’re going to be dealing with adversity. This group is a different group than our group last year, but, again, we know that there are a lot of returning faces. No one shies away when difficult things have happened, whether they are minor or major.

“Every guy steps up in his own way and fills in until the other guy comes back. … I’m very hopeful that Buck comes out of this with something fairly minor, it’s something that we can work through. We have to be prepared for pretty much anything at all times. That’s the mentality that everyone has to have to survive and flourish in this game.”

Jake Depue contributed to this story.