BALTIMORE – It was a mutual leap of faith, forged by trust, informed by familiarity, yet posing significant risk in an industry where that’s become the biggest four-letter word of all.
How, really, could the Minnesota Twins hand out just the second nine-figure contract extension in their history to a player who’d participated in 39% of their games the past four seasons, whose all-out play can send him to the injured list faster than he can chase a ball down in the gap?
Why, you wonder, would Byron Buxton give up his one big shot at free agency when he’d hit the market at the tender age of 28, boasting the most devastating speed-power combo in the game?
The concept of Byron Buxton, Lifetime Twin became reality in November, when he agreed to a seven-year, $100 million extension in Minnesota. The buildup began much sooner, when, like all good relationships, both parties kept the lines of communication open even as Buxton’s talent-health conundrum set the stage for complex negotiations.
The payoff is playing out before our eyes: Buxton is hitting the ball harder and chasing it down more effectively than almost anyone in the major leagues, fulfilling a five-tool destiny the club envisioned when it drafted him second overall in 2012. The Twins, at 15-10, are atop the AL Central once again, second only to the Yankees in OPS during a 12-game span in which they won 11 games to seize the division lead.
And perhaps notably, in an industry designed to blunt loyalty, in an environment where the management-labor dynamic features significant mistrust, Buxton and the Twins avoided a “take it or leave it” moment as he struggled to reach the elite role they envisioned, sharing their mutual hopes and dreams before extending their relationship through 2028.
“Just being able to have the talks throughout those years,” Buxton told USA TODAY Sports, “is massive. A lot of teams (negotiate) with you for a couple years and then it’s, ‘You know what? We’re over it.’
“The situation here is that loyalty that other teams don’t have. That’s what makes the Twins, Minnesota and everything about it so special.”
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Buxton’s extension is second-largest only to Twin Cities native Joe Mauer’s $184 million deal, which soured after injuries prevented Mauer from regularly playing catcher. A year before Buxton’s deal, the club signed third baseman Josh Donaldson to a franchise record $92 million free agent deal and as the lockout lifted in March, gave superstar shortstop Carlos Correa a three-year, $105 million deal, with two opt-out clauses.
Yet huge contracts are still a unicorn in the Upper Midwest. And the trade of Donaldson to the New York Yankees – and the specter of Correa opting out after just one season – illustrates that not much is bolted down as the mid-revenue Twins seek flexibility.
If there is a Twins Way, though, it is to assuage the player’s concerns, to listen and impart whatever details they can, which smoothed the exit of the famously intense Donaldson after a March trade.
“The most important thing I’ve learned you can be in this game is as honest and as transparent as you can be,” says Twins president Derek Falvey. “We recognize it’s a business – it’s part of the game. The key is to navigate that and understand that some players work so hard and their focus so singularly is to get to free agency. You can’t hold that against them. That’s part of the business.
“We start from a baseline level of respect for someone to seek their own best option – for themselves, for their families and for their teams. Those things can overlap.”
Particularly when Buxton ponders his surroundings in Minnesota, realizes his wife, Lindsey and two young boys are happy and recognizes the value of home as sanctuary when work can be so challenging.
“They feel comfortable, they feel safe, and that’s all you can ask for as far as a dad or a husband,” Buxton says. “As long as they’re confident, safe and happy, this is where I want to be as well.
“This is where my heart is.”
‘It’s so glaringly incredible’
Still, a significant part of it will remain in his native Georgia. With financial security in hand, Buxton has purchased land in his hometown of Baxley and plans to construct his dream home. He professes that so long as the gym and batting cage are installed without incident, “I’m good. My wife can have the house.”
Buxton has been a father far longer than a regular big leaguer, his oldest son Brix turning 10 later this year. He says he learned early on in his career from veteran outfielder Torii Hunter to leave work issues at the ballpark, to not take an 0-for-4 home with him.
The advice was a blessing, as Buxton’s career stalled while he struggled to keep his 6-2, 190-pound body healthy. It’s not so much that Buxton was injury prone so much as his playing style became a magnet for freak injuries.
A shoulder injury short-circuited his first pro season in 2013. A left wrist malady and a collision-turned-concussion in 2014. A sprained thumb in 2015, 10 games into his major league career. A toe injury in 2018, all the way through last season, when he missed two months after getting hit on the left hand by a pitch.
Buxton got proactive this winter, hiring a nutritionist to aid in diet as well as recommending workouts and exercises to keep his body flexible. “Physically,” he says, “I know I can play baseball and do what I do. Mentally, it’s a grind and that’s what you have to work on day in and day out.
“And the body is the biggest grind of all. You have to make sure you stay on top of it.”
The Twins are protecting their investment, too, in a manner that preserves Buxton but causes them pain: Leaving him out of the lineup.
Buxton has been a healthy scratch or had sufficient minor bumps and bruises often enough that he’s played in 15 of 25 games, leaving him shy of qualifying for batting titles. It is a nightly conundrum for manager Rocco Baldelli.
“Byron is as good of a baseball player as you’ll ever see,” says Baldelli. “Anytime you have a guy like that, you want 162 games, you want 700 plate appearances. But what we want is for him to play at his best for the entire season and give us a chance to win a World Series. That’s our goal here.
“When you have a guy that can simply, one swing of the bat, turn the game on its head, it’s pretty amazing, but it’s also purely winning ballgames for us. It’s only one way he’s doing it. It’s hard not to talk about all the ways he does it because it’s so glaringly incredible.”
How incredible? Baldelli doesn’t hesitate to consider Buxton one of the top five baserunners and defenders in the world. Statcast data places Buxton in the 90th percentile or above in average and maximum exit velocity, hard-hit velocity, barrel percentage and sprint speed.
His 96.1 mph exit velocity ranks third in the majors, 8 mph above average. And although it’s come in a mere 751 plate appearances, his .587 slugging percentage trails only Mike Trout and Fernando Tatis Jr. in the major leagues.
He has already slugged seven homers this season, including a 462-foot blast that was the longest walk-off in the seven seasons of Statcast. The required plate discipline and power – paired with health – has been a long time coming, an evolution both of mechanics and mindset.
Buxton is unapologetically old school, preferring “see ball, hit ball” to talk of swing plane and launch angle. He says earlier in his career, suggested tweaks to his swing got him out of sorts but he went along, wanting to be “that guy that does everything right.”
Yet none of those swings, he says, “were me.” So he simplified his stroke, returning to what got him drafted in the first place, and adopted the mindset that the pitcher, not he, should be the one with a problem.
“Every day, because I’m so simple, that’s my goal – literally to try to perfect my swing,” he says. “It locks me in to where it don’t matter who’s pitching or what you’re throwing. I don’t really care anymore.
“I step in the batter’s box and you gotta come see me.”
The results have been particularly eye-opening in this season of offensive futility. It’s early, but Buxton is reaching base at a .343 clip, his seven home runs fifth-best in the majors. Buxton’s OPS is 1.053 and his OPS is 210 (100 is league average), indicating how far he’s outkicking his environment.
“The game has slowed down for him,” says Falvey.
And not just on the field. Last month, Baldelli and Falvey were relaxing in the manager’s office at Fenway Park when Buxton popped in, just to chat ball, to discuss the clubhouse dynamics, to impart the team’s temperature to its field boss and its president.
It was eye-opening to Falvey but also indicative of the equity Buxton now holds in the team, and the comfort level security can bring.
That dynamic has deepened with Correa’s addition, giving Buxton a veteran sounding board but also a two-time All-Star and world champ who can remind Buxton just how good he is.
The pair were drafted 1-2 in 2013 but didn’t cross paths professionally until both had a Platinum Glove in tow, their paths to this point wildly divergent.
Both have found a baseball mecca of sorts in Minnesota, even if Correa can opt out after this year and seek a total guarantee closer to the $300 million many expected he’d haul in after leading Houston to a fourth World Series appearance in five years.
Buxton has no such worries. Even as his dream home rises in the South, he’s found another in the Upper Midwest, where trust and security go hand in hand with his outsize baseball skills.
“It’s relaxing,” he says of a Twins culture that he firmly believes is real. “You come to the ballpark, you don’t feel uptight, you don’t feel nervous, you don’t feel like you can’t be you.
“That’s what they want you to be – have fun, play the game and we know if we do what we need, it’s going to be a W at the end of the day. That’s the kind of team we have. And that’s what we expect among ourselves.”