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Not paying Byron Buxton really isn’t such a bad thing

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Cincinnati Reds v Minnesota Twins Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images

I know, I know. I’m the same guy that said the Twins should back a Brinks truck up to Jose Berrios’ front door. I see Berrios and Buxton as two very, very different cases though. One of them is Mr. Reliability, and the other is, well, kind of the opposite. As the stock broker ads like to tell us past performance does not guarantee future results but it can certainly be instructive here.

Byron Buxton has played in a grand total of 459 games, across 7 MLB seasons. In 2017, he appeared 140 times—close enough to call it a full season. Outside of that, he has not ever played 100 MLB games in a year, and has averaged 66 games per season. Sure, there were only 60 games in 2020, and he appeared in 39 of those 60, but if we take that out, the average for the remaining seasons only goes up to 70 games.

Yes, he changes the game when he is healthy. But when is he healthy?

There is an oft-cited stat that the Twins win something like 70% of the games Buxton plays— but 70% of 70 games won’t get you very far. That’s only 49 wins. You need another 40 more, at least, in roughly 90 games, to be competitive. Sure, thats only a .444 pace, yet do you trust the current iteration of the Twins outfield to get us there? If you plan for Byron Buxton in center field, you need to plan for a half-season without Byron Buxton in center field. Depending on exactly how you slice it, his WAR isn’t irreplaceable.

Oh—and the Twins offered him a fair amount of money, based on his past production.

Buxton has accumulated 14.7 WAR in his 7 years in the big leagues, an average of 2.1 wins above replacement per year. 14.7 WAR sandwiches him firmly between Enrique Hernandez and Jarrod Dyson among active players who have center field as a primary position. In 2021, Buxton has been worth 2.9 WAR. Now, admittedly, thats in only 27 games played, but at some point, the best ability is availability. Every guy who has replaced him this season has a negative WAR except Max Kepler, who has his own set of question marks. Overall, Minnesota center fielders are number two in the league in WAR, at a total of 1.9—Kepler’s overall number is 1.1, and 1.9 can be found in free agency as well. For that matter, Akil Baddoo has put up 1.7 WAR by himself this season, and LaMonte Wade Jr has been worth 1.0 WAR. Since left and right field have both been liabilities this season, it drops the entire outfield to a total of 1.3 WAR and number six in the league.

Basically, due to his lack of availability, Buxton’s generational talent is diluted, and he can be replaced with a lower cost option.

The generally acknowledged free-market value of a win is roughly $8 million. By that standard, Buxton is been worth about $118 million to the Twins over his seven-year career. That works out to about $16.8 million per year. He is worth close to $25 million this season. But, and the huge but here, is that he is a wild card. Is he going to play 140 games, or 40? With those numbers in mind, it is not unreasonable (fair is another question) to offer him $80 million over seven years, with incentives to make it more. The problem is that Buxton is a precedent-breaker. A player of his skillset can easily find a record-setting deal, if you can count on him for 140 games most seasons. A player with just slightly lower talent levels would have already washed out due to availability concerns—so how do you balance those two things?

I can’t blame Buxton for wanting every dollar he can get. I also can’t blame the Twins for not being the team to pay it. Assuming they move him this winter, the Twins will be able to make plans for their 2022 roster that don’t include “Buxton insurance.” I’d rather see a three-win player in center field for 140 games, than see Buxton rack up three wins out there over 30 games, and then be replaced by a negative value. Three win players in center field are affordable and available every off season. The prospects the team can get in return will also soften the blow a little bit.