Byron Buxton had reduced his strikeouts to a workable number and started in center field in 61 of the Twins' first 68 games in 2019. He was batting .266 with nine home runs and 38 RBI, maturing as a hitter and showing increased durability at age 25.
On June 14, Buxton was hit on the right wrist by a pitch from Kansas City's Brad Keller and missed 13 games. He then played in eight games, suffered a concussion when diving for a catch and missed 10 games.
This was enough for a vocal portion of the Twins fan base. As the All-Star break approached, there was a rumor that the Mets would part with bullet-throwing starter Noah Syndergaard for Buxton.
True or not, the cry came that Syndergaard was exactly what the Twins needed, a bona fide No. 1 starter, to take advantage of a lineup producing home runs at a record pace.
The deadline for such a dynamic trade passed July 31. As Buxton's luck would have it, one night later he nicked his left shoulder on an abutment as he raced to attempt a catch in Miami's unfamiliar ballpark. He came away with a shoulder injury that led to no further at-bats that season.
Syndergaard went 4-4 with a 3.82 ERA in 15 starts after the All-Star break for the Mets. The other New York team swept out the Twins in the playoffs, as per usual, and the condemnation for not trading Buxton when they had a chance, even if they didn't, was amplified.
Five weeks into the 2021 season, Buxton has been the best player in the American League, and Syndergaard was pitching two innings in a simulated game in Port St. Lucie, Fla., as he progressed from Tommy John surgery in March 2020.
Patience is not our virtue as sports followers, fans or media, especially when it's baseball, where the development of skills is a much longer process.
What makes baseball unique, in my opinion, is a player enters the pros and still must get better four times to reach the majors, and then make the biggest improvement of all to become a standout.
Plus, the most difficult skill to master in all of our major sports is this one: hitting a baseball.
That's more true today than ever, since technology and physiological studies have created more unhittable pitches from more pitchers than ever, without being able to help hitters all that much.
Rookie Alex Kirilloff's ability to show off his splendid swing and play OK first base this week caused this rapid reaction for the masses and, yup, much of us in media:
Miguel Sano can't be a regular when he returns from the injured list this week. Kirilloff has to play first, Luis Arraez stays in the lineup in left and Sano watches.
I've been down on Miguel for a while. I'm not confident he'll ever hit again. Which caused me to remember this: A couple of years ago, I wasn't confident Buxton would ever hit, period.
The see-ya-Miguel theory also ran into complications Tuesday: Arraez went on the concussion list for seven days after his foolish decision to belly slide into home plate on Monday.
This was followed by the crusher: Mysteriously, Kirilloff was not in the lineup — as it turned out, because of a significant wrist injury that figures to keep him out for weeks.
Come back, Miguel. There's enough room in the lineup now. And when that happens, how about some focus on right field as a hitter?
Manager Rocco Baldelli was asked for his view on that possibility.
"When Miggy is going well … he can hit the ball out of the ballpark to all fields," Baldelli said. "We've seen him go deep dead central, we've seen him go the other way.
"I think trying to change a guy's swing path in a big way, you don't see that very often. Hitters generally have a swing that comes naturally to them and their body. To change that and to make him a guy that predominantly goes to right and center field is tough.
"I do think when his timing is right, he can drive the ball that way. And, truthfully, he's probably at his best when using the middle of the field. It is a path thing with Miguel. He does have the ability to shorten that path up.
"We've seen him do it several times before, but it is an adjustment he's going to have to make."
Maybe that happens, now that he's badly needed after the Kirilloff news.
Remember, a couple of years ago we were ready to give up on Buxton, and that was his ninth home run sailing above the bullpen in the first inning on Tuesday.
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