Minnesota's search for starting pitching will be the dominant topic of the offseason in Twins Territory, but Hot Stove season began with some welcome internal news on Wednesday, when president of baseball operations Derek Falvey told MLB.com at the General Managers Meetings in Arizona that center fielder Byron Buxton is expected to be "pretty much full-go" for the start of Spring Training following his season-ending left shoulder surgery in September.
Now just beyond the two-month mark since the procedure, Buxton is out of the protective sling that he wore following the Sept. 10 surgery and is working on a rehabilitation program with a physical therapist in Georgia three to four times a week.
"Byron actually, in a way, feels a little ahead of where you would think he would be," Falvey said. "He seems like a quick healer on that front. We kind of reminded him, talked to his agent and said, 'Be smart. You're going to feel really good and want to push, but there is a timeline to these things.' We just want to make sure he's in a really good place."
Falvey said that they elected to do the surgery in September instead of waiting until the end of the season in order to give Buxton more buffer time for recovery in case of any setbacks. Buxton and the Twins initially gave an estimated recovery timeline of 4-6 months following the surgery, and without any setbacks for the time being, Buxton appears to be well within that range.
The procedure repaired a torn labrum that was sustained during a collision with the outfield wall at Marlins Park on Aug. 1. Buxton initially made a return to the field in a limited capacity as a pinch-runner and defensive replacement before he was shut down for good.
The welcome news indicates that Buxton should have the full length of Spring Training to prepare to build on an important bounceback season in 2019, during which he clubbed a career-high 30 doubles in only 87 games and also posted career highs in average (.262), on-base percentage (.314), slugging percentage (.513) and OPS (.827). He also recorded the lowest strikeout rate (23.1 percent) of his career and increased his hard-hit rate to 38.7 percent, also his best mark as a Major Leaguer.
Kepler's recovery progressing well with rest
Falvey also had good news regarding Buxton's outfield mate, Max Kepler, who he said is responding well to increased rest in the offseason. The right fielder was held to only 11 games in September due to a persistent strain in the rhomboid muscle in his upper back.
"Really positive so far," Falvey said. "Max has gotten a little bit of rest, which has really helped him with the back. He's started his workouts recently. He's in a good place."
Kepler departed for his native Germany on Wednesday to visit Munich, Berlin, Frankfurt and Regensburg as part of Major League Baseball's efforts to spread the game throughout Europe. Kepler will assist with a clinic for 80 children between the ages of 12-14 in Regensburg. He played for Buchbinder Legionäre Regensburg of Bundesliga before he signed with the Twins and moved to the United States as a 16-year-old in 2009.
Free agency notes
• Falvey said the Twins have had "productive conversations" about free-agent pitching options in the early stages of the offseason as the market begins to take shape, but that "nothing concrete" was in the works yet. The Twins are looking to cast a wide net as they gauge the market and begin their search to fill as many as four spots in their 2020 starting rotation.
"Our view is we're not going to rule anything out from the outside," Falvey said. "We're going to have conversations with every club, every agent, and make sure that we know where things stand now. We recognize that sometimes interests don't align, whether from the player's standpoint or from the club, ultimately. But at this stage, we're going to evaluate the entirety of the market."
"I don't think I had anything specific other than those are tough calls," Falvey said. "Obviously, he starts the year suspended next season, so there's an element to that. But there wasn't anything specific that went into it other than we felt like Jake was the one that would get the qualifying offer. But much like Jake and the other guys on the team, we're not ruling out any of those guys to potentially return."