Healthy at last, Buxton eager to get back in center field

February 17th, 2024

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- There’s been a lot of pain in ’s existence in recent years.

Not just the physical agony of the sensation in his right knee that he’d need to treat in the trainer’s room for hours on end every day, but also the mental distress of knowing he couldn’t play the defensive position he loved, the anguish of knowing he couldn’t help his teammates with his glove, the pressure of the outside noise that permeated it all.

All that said -- though he obviously wouldn’t choose to do it again -- he’s somehow still able to say he’s grateful to have gone through all of that.

“Yeah, I am. It’s what made me who I am today,” Buxton said. “Whatever the situation is, it’s just that mindset of not giving up, for me.”

It makes him appreciate days like Saturday all the more. The offseason plica excision procedure on Buxton’s right knee finally has him without pain, he says, for the first time in years. He’s able to laugh and joke and tell animated stories to teammates Niko Goodrum and Simeon Woods Richardson around his locker with an infectious grin on his face.

It’s just … normal. All he wants is normal.

“The pain’s gone, so I'm a lot more happy, 100 percent,” Buxton said. “The last couple of years were definitely painful, just waking up, feeling like a knife is in your knee every morning.”

Normal means center field, too. That’s the part that excites Buxton the most, and the part that he hopes is key to unlocking his full potential at the plate again.

All this is purely theoretical until Buxton actually steps foot on the outfield grass, takes that first fly ball and shows he can do that again, day after day. For now, on Saturday, a day after he reported to camp feeling better than he has in a long time, he called himself “fully healthy” and said he expected a normal outfield workload this spring.

It helps that he feels noticeably better than he did at this point last year, when his recovery from his earlier arthroscopic right knee surgery still left him with pain that delayed his Spring Training buildup and ultimately led to his fixture at DH. It also helps that he’s done more running than he has during other offseasons, and still feels this good.

The Twins are being responsive to that condition, and manager Rocco Baldelli said there’s certainly a path to Buxton having a normal workload. The Twins aren’t planning for an assessment period, Baldelli said; they’ve got full-effort days on the field already slotted in for Buxton early in camp, and Baldelli has Buxton slotted in to play center field within the first week of Grapefruit League games.

“With Buck, we have an idea of when he could be out there and already playing games,” Baldelli said. “I’m saying that because the only way I could say that is if he was doing well. And he is.”

Buxton has seen the other shoe drop aplenty over the years, but he’s been through too much to have any nagging worries as he takes the field. The only thing “nerve-wracking,” he said, will come when he settles under a fly ball for the first time in many, many months and sees full-speed action out there.

“I’ve kind of gotten through that feeling a little bit of, ‘What if something else happens?’” Buxton said. “It’s, for me, just getting out there and like I said, being normal. Being as normal as I can.”

Last year, when he was in pain and struggling with the adjustment to a full-time DH role -- and struggling to get out of his own head after bad at-bats without an outlet on defense -- his offense slumped hard to a .207/.294/.438 line with 17 homers, with most of his expected hitting metrics also taking significant steps back as he tried to hide and play through his limitations.

There’s still a long, long way to go from here, but normalcy for Buxton looks and feels far better than that on the field, and he and the Twins know that. He’ll need to show it, but he’s starting off at a much better place, and there’s a lot to be said for that.

“I went through a tough couple of years,” Buxton said. “For me, anything better than the last two years is going to be a lot of fun.”