CHICAGO — The best center fielder in baseball hasn’t needed his glove for an inning of work this year.
And the Minnesota Twins have no plans to ask him to use it any time soon.
Which, strangely, might be the best way to put the Twins in the middle of a pennant race by the end of the season — if not put Byron Buxton in the middle of the MVP discussion his talent has promised since he was drafted second overall in 2012.
That’s because the only thing more valuable than having the former Platinum Glove winner starting in center behind one of the game’s best-performing pitching staffs this year is having the dynamic Buxton actually starting at all every day, every week of the season.
And not the kind of full stops he’s experienced via injured list stays every full season of his career — so many that it used to be called the “disabled list” when he first started making regular use of it.
“He’s easily one of the top handful of players in baseball,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. “This year our goal is to keep him in the lineup virtually every day. The best way to do that is to DH him right now.
“When he’s sitting there in the middle of the lineup, when he’s on the base paths, you just anticipate that he’s going to — I don’t want to say win the game for you — but that he’s going to do a lot to help you win every single day when he’s playing. He makes our team feel like we’re capable of anything when we’re out there playing.”
Keeping Byron Buxton on the field
Byron Buxton, 29, might be the greatest player in the game to never get serious MVP buzz, because he’s had so much trouble staying on the field — a guy who has played more than 92 games only once in his career but is so valuable to the Twins that they gave him a $100 million contract before last season.
“For me it’s all about playing,” said Buxton, who expects to play “quite a big role” for the first-place Twins in their hunt for October this year. “As long as I’m in the lineup — DH, center — I don’t care where it’s at as long as I’m playing.”
The DH thing isn’t exactly comfortable, he said. “It’s still something I’m adjusting to, getting familiar with,” he said.
But so far, the results have made the plan look inspired. He hit .258 with seven home runs and an .881 OPS during the Twins’ 17-12 April — more importantly missing only three starts for scheduled days off (the Twins were 0-3 in those games).
His value in the lineup was underscored the first two games of a series against the division-rival Chicago White Sox Tuesday and Wednesday, when he reached twice and stole his first base of the season as the leadoff man Tuesday, then reached three more times Wednesday from the cleanup spot, including a drive off the center field wall against Cy Young finalist Dylan Cease to drive in the tying run.
“So far so good for me,” Buxton said of giving up his glove, at least for now. “As long as I’m playing, my worries, my negativity, whatever the situation may be, it’s out the window because I’m playing.
“I know if I’m playing, I can contribute and make an impact on the team. And that goes for everybody in here.”
That last sentiment is part of where the Twins committed their faith in Buxton when they committed that $100 million, seven-year deal.
Baldelli talks about the “charisma and the electricity” Byron Buxton brings to group — an intangible Baldelli calls “uplifting” — when he’s in the lineup.
“You can’t be more consequential to a team than he is to what we do here,” Baldelli said.
A return to centerfield?
That doesn’t mean the best center fielder in the game won’t eventually grab his glove and return to his position at some point. “I’m not going to close the book in any way on him playing center field this year,” Baldelli said, “but I’m not going to sit here and tell you I think he’s going to be playing center field soon.”
Byron Buxton shrugs off the question of a timeline for something like that.
“What we got now is working,” he said. “Why would I put a timeline on it when we got a Gold Glover in center field now? That’s what people don’t get.”
In fact, Byron Buxton’s spot is being covered by 2021 Gold Glove center fielder Michael A. Taylor for now. They also have a two-time Gold Glove right fielder on the roster in Joey Gallo, Buxton is quick to point out. Gallo has played center twice this year.
“People don’t understand. How many center fielders got a Gold Glove in the league right now?” he said. “But we got how many? So it don’t matter if I’m out there or not. We got that many Gold Glovers that can just go and play that position and play it well. It puts your mind at ease.
“Nobody’s worried if I’m going back out there or not.”
The occasional hometown columnist notwithstanding.
The only thing Buxton is worried about these days is being there. And then being there again tomorrow.
Baldelli said he won’t play the what-if game when asked what a full season of Buxton — an MVP talent who played 140 games in 2017 and only 43 percent or the Twins games since — would mean to a team with pennant aspirations.
For his part, Byron Buxton says the mindset is simple.
“We keep doing what we’re doing, block out the white noise,” he said. “We know what we’re trying to achieve inside this clubhouse, and we know that’s our biggest focus.”
But personally? A full season in the lineup?
“Aw, man,” he said, pausing as he broke into a big smile. “That’s the goal. That would probably make me smile. That would make me very, very happy. That’s more of a team thing, but just being there, day in and day out, to have their back. That makes me happy. Very happy.”
Gordon Wittenmyer covers Major League Baseball for Sportsnaut. You can follow him on Twitter at @GDubCub.