'I'm back': Buxton plans for return to center field

January 27th, 2024

MINNEAPOLIS -- As soon as the vast majority of the coaches and players who will don the uniform of the Minnesota Twins in 2024 congregated in front of a crowd of fans for the opening night of TwinsFest,  was immediately summoned to center stage. There was no point in delaying the biggest question on the minds of everyone in attendance:

Will he be back in center field this season?

“Oh, yeah,” Buxton said. “I’m back.”

The match between the onetime Platinum Glove Award-winning center fielder and the designated hitter role in 2023 was one born of necessity, and in speaking about that even now, it’s clear Buxton never felt totally comfortable with it -- and he never fully wanted to do it -- but he had to listen to his body and the reality that entailed.

For the Twins to be at their best, Buxton needs to be in center field. For Buxton to be at his best, he needs to be in center field. And as his rehab continues to progress this offseason, Buxton is again listening to his body -- and it’s giving him a different message this time.

“What makes me so sure [about center field]? My body tells me that,” Buxton said. “I wouldn’t have said that if I wasn’t sure.”

Buxton can’t say for sure yet how often he thinks he’ll be able to play center field, because that will depend -- as it has so often in the last few years -- on how his body responds to increased activity, which he won’t see in game action until Spring Training. He hasn’t played center field since August 2022, after all.

For now, Buxton is running three times a week, hitting at full strength -- including live batting practice -- and doing some outfield work, including throwing, as he also works on his running with his old track coach -- as he typically does. The intention is for him to go directly into live hitting alongside his teammates when he arrives in Fort Myers.

That is more encouraging following this offseason surgery, this one an excision of the plica in his right knee to address the pain that limited him to DH last season and hindered his offensive performance. A year ago, building back off his previous knee surgery, there had been more uncertainty and discomfort, and any outlook in spring was more “hopeful” than “realistic” in hindsight, according to president of baseball operations Derek Falvey.

“We’ve had a lot more check-ins and understanding about where he’s at from a progress standpoint, a lot more video, a lot more live hitting, a lot more running than what we have seen at this point,” Falvey said. “So he’s further along from that standpoint, and I think the real positive, and I think this is the story that comes out of it is, no setbacks.”

Buxton wants to fully put last year behind him, to forget the memories of arriving at the ballpark at 1 p.m. before night games to immediately go to the training room for three hours, then to the weight room, all in an effort to get him ready for that evening’s game. Stepping back onto the outfield grass would be a big help.

“It's just kind of one of those things where I didn't feel like I took a break,” Buxton said.

“I think he’s mentally prepared to play center field,” Carlos Correa said. “He knows that, as a team, is what we want from him. He knows that is when we are at our best when he’s in center field. He’s been putting in the work this offseason.”

The back knee is a crucial part of the hitting mechanism, and Buxton couldn’t fully lean on his back leg while setting up and swinging -- which impacted his swing, as he crushed 17 homers in 85 games but struggled to a .207 average and .731 OPS. He now says the swing feels "as close to normal as it’s going to get.”

The challenge with the knee, too, is that in trying to play through issues, physical compensations in the swing led to issues with the hip and the hamstring. He says he’s grown from the experience in learning not to push the injury -- and armed with a better knee outlook and those lessons, Buxton is already visibly excited for the new season.

“What excites me? I’m going back to center,” Buxton said. “As simple as that. Nothing makes me happier than playing the outfield.”