Wetmore: It’s too bad but Twins are left with the same tired question on Byron Buxton

MINNEAPOLIS — Tuesday at Target Field offered the inescapable reminder of the 1-2 punches the Twins sustained over the weekend — a right and then a left hook that landed cleanly on the jaw. Byron Buxton’s season is over after labrum surgery landed him on the 60-day Injured List, the Twins said; and Michael Pineda spoke to the media for the first time since accepting a reduced 60-game suspension for failing a drug test.

There will be plenty of time to assess what Buxton’s surgery means for the 2019 Twins. They’re a great team, pacing toward 100 wins this season, and a lot of those W’s were racked up while Buxton was on the shelf. They’ve always seemed like a more dangerous team with him than without him, and this was the first year in the Majors that he put it all together for more than a month to look like a complete star.

In the 87 games that he played this season, Buxton hit .262/.314/.513 with 10 home runs, good for a career-best .340 Weighted On-Base Average. He cut down on strikeouts, connected with pitches more routinely, and made authoritative contact at a better clip than we’d seen in the past. He led the league in doubles for a stretch before he got hurt. He was once again at the top of the list of best centerfielders in all of baseball, and as it turns out, his blessing there was also his curse.

Buxton crashed into walls and banged his face on the grass in the name of turning would-be base hits into outs at a better rate than just about everybody. Add that amazing range to his strong and accurate throwing arm, and you couldn’t really ask for anything more from the supremely qualified centerfielder.

Other than, of course, staying on the field.

In the past the public narrative had read something like: ‘Buxton has great talent, he’s super fast, it’s unclear if he’ll put it together offensively and he’s struggled to stay on the field.’

Now, there’s some correction necessary. ‘Buxton has great talent, he’s super fast, it seems he’s put it together offensively and he’s struggled to stay on the field.’

In his first year as Twins manager, Rocco Baldelli got to see the best version of Buxton that we’ve witnessed to date.

“I thought he was a dangerous offensive player for us. Part of that is his legs, because once he gets on base … he finds a way to make things happen and score runs,” Baldelli said. “He can do things other people obviously can’t do. But I thought he had a good approach, I thought he hit balls hard and impacted the ball well. He had a good offensive year.

“Buck was for the early part of the year, close to halfway through the year, he was one of the best players in baseball. You can spin it any way you want and look at the numbers any way you want. There are very few players in baseball that were more valuable than him to that point,” Baldelli said.

And then: injuries.

This is Buxton’s fifth season since he debuted in 2015. He’s only had one season in which he batted more than 350 times in a year. That was 2017, and he played 140 games, missing only a short amount time with a strained groin. We should note, too, in a piece praising his 2019 excellence, that Buxton struggled mightily offensively in the early goings of his big league career. He spent parts of 2016 in the minors and it’s fair to say that while he was young, it did take quite a while to prove to the world that he was capable of handling himself in the big leagues with a bat in his hands. He finished 2017 with a forceful month and then injuries ruined his 2018 season.

Related reading: Byron Buxton and the ‘$50 million question’

In total he’s just shy of 400 career games and 1,400 plate appearances. By comparison, Carlos Correa has almost 1,000 more plate appearances in his MLB career (more than 70% more plate appearances than Buxton in the big leagues). The two will always be linked and compared professionally, since Correa was taken first overall the same year that the Twins nabbed Buxton at No. 2 in the draft.

Still, Buxton remains young (he turns 26 in December) and his talent is as undeniable as at any point his story. Unfortunately for Buxton and for the Twins, that story has continually taken detours and there are far too many chapters centered on injuries and being unavailable. Migraines, concussion, broken toe, wrist, finger, shoulder…  it’s a lengthy chapter of the book on Buxton as it’s currently outlined.

Buxton made $1.75 million this year in his third full season of MLB service time, and he’ll again be eligible for an arbitration raise this winter. Relative to some careers, he’s still so early in his journey that it’s not fair to hit publish on his story just yet. Also true is that he’s far enough along that the Twins — and Buxton — probably wish there was a more definitive answer to the question that’s followed Buxton around for years: Can he ever stay healthy and available for long enough to manifest his greatness on the diamond?

Related listening: First Michael Pineda, now Byron Buxton: Where does that leave the 2019 Twins?