KANSAS CITY -- It's almost time for take two with Byron Buxton.
The center fielder will begin a rehab assignment with Triple-A St. Paul on Tuesday after he completed the baserunning program the Twins laid out for him without issue. He's been baserunning and sprinting at 100 percent, and once the club continues to ensure he's recovering without any problems, it appears ready to take the final step towards Buxton's return to the field.
"We haven't mapped it out completely yet," manager Rocco Baldelli said. "But he's doing very well. We don't want to hold him back, necessarily, if the staff can't get eyes on him. But medically, he's in a very good spot. We don't want to hold him back if that's the case."
Right-hander Kenta Maeda will also take a step forward this week as he recovers from a right adductor strain, making a rehab start for St. Paul on Wednesday. Maeda threw two successful bullpen sessions over the weekend in Kansas City, using all of his pitches, and is no longer bothered by the tightness in his groin that initially sent him to the IL. Baldelli said that Maeda is feeling stronger physically and his general arm soreness is less on his mind.
The Twins have been here before with their star center fielder. Buxton could have progressed to a rehab assignment as soon as last weekend, but his timeline was pushed back after he experienced some trouble decelerating. But this time, after several days of successful work at Target Field with physical therapist Adam Diamond, the Twins are happy with Buxton's readiness for play.
Even at the MVP level that saw him post a .370/.408/.772 line through 24 games, Buxton's return might be too late to change the Twins' season trajectory. The club has gone 12-16 since he last played on May 6, and Minnesota entered Sunday at 23-35 and 12 games out of first place in the American League Central.
If the Twins continue on their present trajectory towards being sellers, Buxton could be playing for value at the Trade Deadline. Though he's not on an expiring contract, his extreme upside, level of success in 2021 and remaining full season of club control could net a more significant prospect haul from a team that's willing to stomach the extensive injury history and risk for his services.
With Max Kepler and Rob Refsnyder also possible to return later this week, the Twins will get several meaningful pieces back in a hurry to bolster their center field depth. It's unlikely that Kepler will play much center field in his return from a left hamstring strain, meaning the team could face an interesting roster crunch at that point.
Refsnyder could assume the Jake Cave role as a dedicated backup center fielder with the ability to flex out to the corner spots, but between Alex Kirilloff, Trevor Larnach, Kyle Garlick and Gilberto Celestino, the Twins have several optionable outfielders to move to Triple-A St. Paul if needed -- though Kirilloff and Larnach, as presumed building blocks of the future, could continue to benefit from regular MLB at-bats.
Buxton usually has the green light to steal bases at will when he's on the basepaths.
Nelson Cruz, on the other hand?
"Nellie’s almost like a no-light guy," Baldelli said. "He's not red light. You're not even red-lighting him. You're not really doing anything."
But when you get to be 40 years old, with 17 big league seasons under your belt, you generally tend to get a little leeway to do as you please. He exercised that discretion during the third inning on Saturday, when he took off from first base -- with a lefty on the mound, no less -- and swiped second on a ball to the backstop for his first stolen base since May 12, 2018.
"A few times a year, he's just going to take off and go when he has a pretty good feeling that he’s going to be safe, so I'm OK with that," Baldelli said. "I am OK with that."
But at his age, Cruz was still feeling the after-effects of that day of action on Sunday, when he was scratched from the lineup with a stiff left knee that the Twins hope will go away with a game off and the team's off-day on Monday. He was available to hit in the series finale against the Royals at Kauffman Stadium.
The steal was the highlight of a day full of hustle for the designated hitter, who was thrown out at home plate on Kirilloff's single in that third inning and later sparked Minnesota's go-ahead rally in the sixth with a hustle double to center field, with Royals outfielder Michael A. Taylor certainly caught off guard by the aggression.
Cruz was the first Twins player to steal a base after his 40th birthday since Torii Hunter on Aug. 7, 2015. Maybe this will empower him to add to that tally.
"He's really trying to earn that green light from Rocco and he might have a good case now," catcher Ryan Jeffers said. "After stretching that double and stealing that bag, maybe he's adding another tool in his early 40s here."
"I can hear him through about three walls and two doors right now still talking about it," Baldelli said.