MINNEAPOLIS — Rocco Baldelli was reluctant to go into detail about many of his plans during a press conference Wednesday at Target Field — this included his refusal to reveal his lineup for Thursday’s opener against Cleveland — but the new Twins manager was darn near an open book when the subject of Byron Buxton was broached.
The center fielder, coming off an outstanding spring in which he hit .410/.455/.795 with four home runs, 15 RBIs and four stolen bases in 16 games and 39 at-bats, is entering a make-or-break season. Buxton is no longer a young phenom whom the Twins are hoping can live up to the potential he carried as the second-overall pick in the 2012 major league draft.
Buxton has now played parts of four big-league seasons and has two years, 160 days of service time. He has shown what he’s capable of doing — he put together a solid second half in 2017 and won a Gold Glove because of his outstanding defense — and at other times he’s been a massive disappointment. His injury-plagued 2018 came to an early end when the Twins decided to send him home from Triple-A Rochester instead of calling him up when rosters expanded.
Buxton did not hide his distaste for the Twins’ decision in offseason interviews and it appeared he took his anger out on the baseball in spring training. But getting overly excited about a player’s performance in Florida can be dangerous, and that’s why the real test for Buxton will start on Thursday at Target Field.
Buxton, 25, will be in the lineup but Baldelli said it will be at the bottom of the order, where the pressure won’t be as great as it was two years ago when Buxton hit third in lineup on Opening Day.
“I think Byron is going to take advantage of the things that he can do regardless of where he sits in the lineup,” Baldelli said. “For most of the spring, Byron bounced around in a lot of different parts of the lineup. Part of that is related to spring training and the nature of setting lineups every day and home and road games and not getting everyone on the field at the same time. But Byron is going to hit this year towards the bottom of the lineup, and I think it’s a pretty comfortable spot for a lot of different reasons.
“Having the ability to have him in one of those spots, and then immediately turn it over to the top of the lineup, is a pretty exciting prospect. It’s something that I’ve seen before, and it’s something that I think could be actually a huge benefit to us. As opposed to just putting him in a particular spot on a given day and just hoping that it works out. I think there could be a comfort there, and somewhere where he feels he’s going to be in the lineup everyday.”
Buxton, who struck out 28 times in 90 at-bats last season and 340 times in 979 big-league at-bats, is in an interesting situation. The Twins and Buxton both know the pressure that is on him, but Baldelli is doing his best to make Buxton comfortable.
That started in spring training when Baldelli said he had a conversation with Buxton and assured him he would be in the lineup on a daily basis. That has not always been the case when Buxton has slumped and been sent to Rochester or held out. “He’s going to play every day, he’s going to be out there,” Baldelli said. “He doesn’t have to come in and think about anything related to that. He’s going to be out there in center field running around for us everyday.”
Perhaps the best thing the Twins saw from Buxton in Fort Myers was a confident approach that has long seemed to be lacking.
“His performance line [in spring training] was tremendous,” said Derek Falvey, the Twins’ chief baseball officer. “And while we look at that, because I think it’s a good confidence boost for a guy, but I don’t think that drives our assessment of the spring. I think what we saw was a healthy Byron and someone who was letting it loose so to speak. …. He looks like he’s playing with a confidence and certainly feels good, I think his swing is in a good place. So now, he knows he wants to get off to a good start, and he’s talked about that. But he’s in a good place, he’s in a healthy place, and we know we’re our best team when Byron’s at his best.”
Baldelli, a former big-league outfielder himself, knows that even if Buxton never reaches his full potential at the plate that his play in center field makes him incredibly valuable to the Twins’ pitching staff.
“He’s literally one of the most dynamic players in baseball,” Baldelli said. “He doesn’t have to go out there and hit .300 or hit 35 home runs. … If he’s out there, he’s healthy, he’s running around in center field doing his thing, getting on base, having good at-bats, that alone makes him an incredibly impactful, exceptional player for us. Someone that other teams have to prepare for specifically and take notice of what he can do. He affects the game in every way. I’ve had fun watching him in spring training. I’ve really enjoyed being able to see him out there, but I’m even more so looking forward to the season and seeing him do it for an entire year.”