Who could back up Buxton in center field in 2024?

December 5th, 2023

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Don’t expect too much from the Twins at these Winter Meetings -- mainly because their market is almost certainly going to be in trades and short-term signings, both of which will only move in earnest later in the offseason, once the bulk of the baseball world comes unstuck.

As for their prime trade candidates like Jorge Polanco, Max Kepler and Kyle Farmer, the Twins are more likely to act when they have greater clarity on the opportunities that could materialize. They’ll have to be reactive to that -- but beforehand, they might have to be more proactive in the matter of center field, which still remains one of the team’s most pressing questions this offseason.

The good news for Minnesota is that president of baseball operations Derek Falvey announced that was fully cleared from his recovery following the plica excision surgery in his right knee immediately following the Twins’ exit from the postseason in October. Buxton worked out for the Twins’ medical staff last week and will ramp up baseball activity later this week, with the sense that he could have a relatively normal offseason.

“He was moving around about as well as they had seen him move around in a long time, which was great,” Falvey said. “He was doing some things that he couldn’t really do last year at different times in terms of how he was moving, so that was good.”

But even with the encouraging Buxton news, there remains thought that center field will remain a key area of need this offseason -- even as the Twins work with limited resources to seek pitching depth and perhaps a right-handed bat, among other needs.

Does this Buxton update change the need for a Michael A. Taylor-type acquisition to serve as primary insurance as a potential everyday fill-in in the case (and often, eventuality) of a Buxton injury?

“It's a challenging [question], because obviously, we’ve gone through some challenges with Byron in center over the last couple of seasons,” Falvey said. “We also know if he's healthy and in a good place, there's nobody we're going to get that's going to have as much of an impact as Byron Buxton playing center field. That's pretty basic. How it changes it, it's kind of in between.”

The internal options are Willi Castro and Austin Martin (MLB Pipeline's No. 20 Minnesota prospect), who should both play prominent roles on the Twins’ roster this season. Things are complicated by the fact that there are other center field-needy teams this offseason, including the deep-pocketed Mets, who were reportedly connected to Taylor on Monday at the Winter Meetings.

The Twins acknowledge that they had some optimism with Buxton coming out of his arthroscopic cleanup procedure last offseason, too -- and they still sought Taylor in a trade with the Royals anyway. Everyone remembers how that turned out: Buxton never stepped foot in center as he continued to battle his right knee, and Taylor played 126 games there.

“It was a little less clear where we were with Byron at that point last year, because it was just a cleanup, just wanted to see how things were going,” Falvey said. “This procedure was a little more specific around where that pressure is, what that pain looks like.”

The Twins will still wait for more clarity to emerge with Buxton. Perhaps they’ll know more by early January, or mid-January -- but there’s also a good chance they don’t really know much more meaningful information about his game ability on a day-to-day basis until Spring Training.

All the while, the clock is ticking.

Soon enough, the markets will start to move, and the Twins could still be in a holding pattern to gauge their need in center. Last season, the market moved slowly enough that Minnesota acquired Donovan Solano even after Spring Training began -- but there’s no real guarantee that this market will act the same.

But Buxton remains the ultimate question mark -- and at some point, the Twins will have to decide whether their young internal options are enough or if they’re willing to dedicate their limited resources to another Buxton backup in the absence of the proof of his health during a playing season.

“We're quietly building,” manager Rocco Baldelli said. “We're quietly kind of assessing everything going on around us, and we just have to stay ready in case there is a move that presents itself. … You're never going to have too many good players where you are impeding yourself in any way.”