The Twins announced Sunday they have demoted Byron Buxton to Class AAA Rochester, and at least part of the story line from that news was more about who they weren’t sending down rather than who they were sending down.
The chatter, fueled by Twins manager Paul Molitor’s comments last week, was that Miguel Sano was a candidate to get sent down. He responded with a blistering four-game stretch, so instead it’s Buxton making room for Trevor Plouffe on the active roster.
It’s certainly good news for the Twins that Sano seems to have at least temporarily re-confirmed his place in the big leagues (and in the heart of the Twins order), but let’s also be honest about the other part of the equation: it’s bad news for the organization that Buxton was clearly the odd man out, and his mounting demotions are starting to become worrisome.
Now: it’s absolutely correct when interim GM Rob Antony says, “He’s just 22. His struggles are not unprecedented; it’s just that he’s been such a highly touted prospect, it gets a little more magnified than a younger player.”
And just as I worried a year ago when he was initially called up, Buxton’s failures have indeed been magnified. But not all of the hand-wringing from fans or the media can be explained away by simple impatience. That doesn’t mean the Twins or any of us should stop being patient while watching the evolution of a very young player. But even while we do that, we can acknowledge that the struggles have been more acute and persistent than we might have guessed based on Buxton’s track record and everything we had heard about him.
There are two particularly troubling things, which are related.
The first: Buxton has had four distinct opportunities in the majors, and we haven’t really seen significant incremental progress from one chance to the next. We’ve seen flashes, but this is the reality:
*Buxton made his MLB debut June 14 and started 11 games before being sidelined by a thumb injury. He hit .189 with strikeouts in 38 percent of his 39 plate appearances in that stint.
*Once healthy last year, he went to Rochester and caught fire. He played his first game back with the Twins on Aug. 20 — in the middle of a playoff chase. In that stint, he hit .217 with strikeouts in 29 percent of his 99 plate appearances.
*He started 2016 with the Twins. He batted .156 with strikeouts in 49 percent of his plate appearances. He was demoted before the end of April.
*Buxton stung the ball again in Rochester after the demotion. He came back and had a hot start, going 10 for his first 23 with the Twins. But cumulatively in this fourth go-round before being demoted Sunday, Buxton hit just .204 with strikeouts in 33 percent of his plate appearances.
In both years, his second try was better than his first. In both years, though, the progress was neither a major improvement nor sustained.
The second trouble spot: We’ve seen Buxton tinker with his stride (leg kick? No leg kick?) … we’ve heard Buxton talk about how he’s thinking too much … we’ve had Antony talk about Buxton’s “confidence” … we’ve had Molitor talk about “pressure.” All of those things speak to a player who is a little confused and overwhelmed right now — sentiments that are backed up by Buxton’s numbers.
Buxton’s track record is such that he *should* figure it out and become a productive-to-great hitter in the majors. And there’s no doubt that his speed and defense are already at an elite level.
But he hasn’t shown he can hit in four distinct stints in the majors. For a 22-year-old, that’s not panic-inducing. But it is worrisome.