The answer to the Twins’ most pressing question of spring training was answered Thursday: Turns out, Byron Buxton was ready to start the season by Opening Day.
Minnesota at Oakland, the first game of the 2020 season, didn’t happen as scheduled, but had it been played, Buxton probably would have been in the lineup, Twins manager Rocco Baldelli and President of Baseball Operations Derek Falvey confirmed during a conference call Thursday. Instead, the Twins center fielder is at his home in Baxley, Ga., his left shoulder now completely healed from labrum surgery last September.
“Buck’s rehab could not have gone smoother,” Baldelli said. “Physically, mentally, he’s in a tremendous spot.”
Buxton remained at the Twins’ headquarters in Fort Myers, Fla., when MLB shut down all training camps March 12 because of the coronavirus pandemic, to continue the rehab program that had kept him out of all Grapefruit League games this spring.
“He finished up, did some more work with our physical therapist, and as things wound down, it was clear he was moving on to more baseball activity,” Falvey said. “It felt like the best place for him to be was back home with his family.”
If training camps eventually resume, Buxton will be on the same schedule as his teammates, Baldelli said, “a more normal progression along the lines of a typical player.”
Pitching coach Wes Johnson also joined the Twins’ conference call, and said he has been in touch with each member of the team’s pitching staff nearly every day during the shutdown. Johnson gave each pitcher a course of action to follow, as best they can, to stay ready for the eventual resumption of the baseball calendar. With so many facilities closed, it hasn’t been easy for all of them to find places to work out, however.
“Every guy is facing challenges. Think about it: We’re at a point now where, if it rains all day, they don’t throw,” Johnson said. “We’re trying to look at things on a weekly basis. So right now, we’ve got them on a throwing program. Will that change in another two weeks if we don’t have any clarity on which direction we’re going? Absolutely.”
Given that nobody can predict whether the season will be delayed by weeks, months or even canceled completely, Johnson was hesitant to say how long it will take the Twins pitching staff to ready itself for major league games again.
“We can go through all these scenarios, right? … But we feel pretty confident as a staff that 21-28 days, if that’s what we’re given, we could have some guys ready to go,” Johnson said. “Who knows, though, how much time they could call us and say we’re getting. Who knows? That’s why we’re trying to stay in touch with these guys so we have an idea when they do come back who might need more time and who doesn’t.”
There were 56 players on the Twins’ camp roster (plus Fernando Romero, stuck in the Dominican Republic by visa issues, on the restricted list) when the Twins left Fort Myers. In order to cut down that number and clarify some players’ status, Falvey said, the Twins intend to begin announcing a handful of transactions in the next few days, particularly dealing with nonroster invitees to camp.
“We’ll still have a number of [nonroster players] in camp [when it reopens], but we [wanted to] think about what the group is that’s still competing for the team,” Falvey said. “We haven’t made final roster decisions in any way, but we wanted to at least take on a little bit of roster cleanup.”
They started Thursday by optioning a couple of players from their 40-man roster to minor league camp. Outfielder LaMonte Wade Jr., whose chances of making the 2020 Opening Day roster would have been much stronger if Buxton had needed more time to recover from surgery, will start the season at Class AAA Rochester, along with righthander Sean Poppen.
Both players made their major league debuts in 2019, Poppen by appearing in four games in relief in June and July, and Wade by making a couple of one-game call-ups before spending all of September with the Twins, making a number of notable contributions in their drive to the AL Central title.
Baldelli offered few hints this spring about how his lineup might be constructed with newcomer Josh Donaldson added to it. Had the season started on time, he would have had to announce a lineup Thursday, so surely he’s ready to make public what it would have looked like.
“I’m going to drag that one out until the very end,” Baldelli joked, “and hopefully everyone will enjoy it when it finally arrives.”