MINNEAPOLIS -- Torii Hunter wouldn’t agree that this is a big season for Byron Buxton.
“Every season’s a big season,” the former Minnesota Twins center fielder said Wednesday.
OK, let’s put it this way then. Byron Buxton’s 2019 season is a big one for the Minnesota Twins.
It starts on Thursday afternoon against the Cleveland Indians at Target Field. If the Twins are going to bounce back from a disappointing 78-84 finish in 2018, they need Buxton to play every day and probably to hit better than he has at the major league level.
We say probably because Buxton is such a good center fielder that his generally weak hitting hasn’t stopped him from making a difference for the Twins. In his only full major league season -- 140 games in 2017 -- he hit .253 with 16 home runs and 51 RBIs, scored 69 runs and won a Gold Glove.
The Twins made the playoffs for the first time since 2010, earning the American League’s second wild-card spot.
On the outside, there is skepticism that Minnesota will contend in the AL Central this season, and there should be. For starters, they have a first-time manager in Rocco Baldelli, and for starters they’re relying on bounce-back seasons from three of their returning five. In the clubhouse, however, optimism abounds.
“It’s an exceptionally talented group,” Baldelli said Wednesday.
Maybe the group’s most exceptionally talented player is Buxton, one of the majors’ best outfielders and fastest players. He has done all but two things in parts of four major league seasons: hit consistently and stay healthy. Right now, the latter is most important. The Twins need him on the field, even if he’s hitting .220.
Last year, he hit .156 with 28 strikeouts in 28 games before spending the rest of the season on the disabled list and in the minor leagues. He tore up the minors, as he typically does, and was angry when the Twins didn’t call him up in September — a move that gave the team some control over Buxton’s future but also might have lit the appropriate fire under their longtime top prospect.
Buxton, 25, arrived for spring training with about 20 new pounds of muscle and came out of the gates guns blazing, hitting .410 with four homers, three doubles, seven runs, four stolen bases and 15 RBIs in 16 games.
“Now,” Hunter said, “he’s got to transition and carry that over into the season. Once he does that, I think people will really put him in the category as one of the best five-tool players in the game.”
Buxton did his best to be inconspicuous during Wednesday’s afternoon workout at Target Field. He stayed back near the center field wall and shagged flies with teammates, then made a beeline for the clubhouse without pausing for questions. No doubt he is tired of answering the same ones he’s been answering the past few seasons.
For their part, the Twins are doing their best to prime the pump for their would-be star.
“I think he’s literally one of the most dynamic players in baseball,” Baldelli said, adding, “He’s going to play every day. He’s going to be out there. He doesn’t have to come in and think about anything related to that.”
Said Twins chief baseball officer Derek Falvey: “We’re our best team when Byron’s at his best.”
That, no doubt, is true. It’s also hard to imagine what Buxton’s best might be if he can hit better, take more walks, get on base at a rate better than his career-high .314 in 2017. With his defense already in place, he’d be an all-star. But this is true, as well: The Twins are their best team, in Falvey’s parlance, when Buxton is on the field. Period.
One suspects that with another full season, the rest will come, and that would be exciting not just for the Twins and their fans, but for baseball, as well.