Twins Potential Playoff Lineups with Byron Buxton in Center Field
Since March, Minnesota Twins fans and media members have asked questions surrounding when/if Byron Buxton will play center field in 2023 and, for months, the answer has essentially been, ‘we do not know, but not anytime soon’.
That changed when Rocco Baldelli told reporters last weekend that internal discussions are being had on if/when/how to return Buxton to center field once he comes off the injured list. From the sounds of it, Byron will see outfield reps during his rehab assignment with the Saints, whenever that imminently starts, then see some time in center field for the Twins, before the playoffs begin.
Playoffs? We’re talking about playoffs?!
Yes, the MLB postseason is still over a month away. But the Twins are a shoe-in to win the AL Central, at this point (95.6% chance to make the playoffs, per Fangraphs). And when asked the ‘why now?’ questions, regarding Buxton’s return, both he and Rocco pointed to the postseason.
The Twins want to write Byron into the game one AL Wildcard lineup as their starting center fielder. That’s the goal and that’s what they are going to try and ramp him up for, when he returns off the IL.
Buxton and Baldelli both pointed to the playoffs as the end goal, while also recognizing that stepping into center field for Game 1 of a postseason series would be difficult without seeing some regular-season game reps there for the first time in nearly a year. Buxton last played center field on Aug. 22, 2022.
“We talk about it,” Buxton said. “Obviously that goes a lot with how the body feels, how the knee feels, how everything all together feels. So for me, it’s about putting us in the best situation, so that when we do get to that spot, get to the playoffs, to make sure I’m in the lineup.”Aaron Gleeman – The Athletic
Obviously, there is no guarantee Buxton’s glass knee will make it through a month of running around in center field. And even if his body does hold up, will playing defense magically fix the many issues he has had at the plate?
Don’t forget about how good Byron Buxton can be…
Who knows… but one thing is for sure. If Byron Buxton were to gain confidence, from a week-long rehab stint dominating Triple-A pitchers and a return to the outfield, it would be the equivalent of Minnesota adding an MVP-type player just before the postseason.
If you’ve watched Buxton’s struggles at the plate this summer, it’s hard to remember back to 2021 and 2022, when the only thing keeping him from superstardom was his inability to stay healthy. When confident and patient at the plate, and when his body feels good, Byron has often looked like one of the best players in baseball.
So let’s assume the Twins ramp up plan works. Buxton returns from the IL and miraculously looks more like his dominant self, both at the plate and on defense — a middle of the order bat that runs like a cheetah on the bases and plays a gold glove caliber center field.
What would the Twins’ playoff lineups look like vs right and left-handed starting pitchers? Let’s start with a possible batting order vs righties.
Twins Potential Playoff Lineup vs Right-Handed Starters
|Lineup||Pos.||Player||’23 OPS vs RHP|
|1||DH||Eddie Julien (L)||.933|
|2||2B||Jorge Polanco (S)||.753|
|3||SS||Carlos Correa (R)||.673|
|4||RF||Max Kepler (L)||.819|
|5||3B||Royce Lewis (R)||.868|
|6||CF||Byron Buxton (R)||.767|
|7||1B||Alex Kirilloff (L)||.878|
|8||LF||Matt Wallner (L)||.995|
|9||C||Ryan Jeffers (R)||.899|
|Bench||Jordan Luplow (R)||.527|
|Bench||Donovan Solano (R)||.800|
|Bench||Christian Vazquez (R)||.577|
|Bench||Michael A. Taylor (R)||.682|
|Bench||Willi Castro (S)||.717|
With or without Buxton in the lineup, teams that deploy righties vs the Twins see their best batting lineups. It means you’ll see Eddie Julien and Matt Wallner, who both crush righties. So does Alex Kirilloff, when healthy. Kirilloff expects to be back by the start of playoffs.
Obviously, playoff success will depend largely on Carlos Correa, who is one of the most clutch postseason hitters in MLB history, finally finding his mojo. Same goes for Buck. I’m not worried about Polanco or Lewis, as long as both remain healthy enough to be in the lineup.
But Julien, Wallner and Kirilloff have all proven they can be just as dangerous (more dangerous this season) vs right-handed pitchers, compared to players like Buxton or Correa, who the Pohlads pay big bucks. Obviously, if Jeffers and/or Wallner are still on fire, come October, you may have to move them up in the lineup.
Twins Potential Playoff Lineup vs Left-Handed Starters
|Lineup||Pos||Player||’23 OPS vs LHP|
|1||CF||Byron Buxton (R)||.628|
|2||2B||Jorge Polanco (S)||.728|
|3||SS||Carlos Correa (R)||.852|
|4||3B||Royce Lewis (R)||.932|
|5||DH||Ryan Jeffers (R)||.848|
|6||RF||Max Kepler (L)||.686|
|7||1B||Donovan Solano (R)||.717|
|8||LF||Jordan Luplow (R)||.699|
|9||C||Christian Vazquez (R)||.677|
|Bench||Eddie Julien (L)||.436|
|Bench||Alex Kirilloff (L)||.470|
|Bench||Matt Wallner (L)||.417|
|Bench||Michael A. Taylor (R)||.842|
|Bench||Willi Castro (S)||.647|
Since the All-Star break, Max Kepler has played himself into a right field role, no matter the handedness of the starting pitcher, by slashing .302/.359/.597 in the 2nd half. Still, Kepler’s OPS vs righties is over 100 points better than vs lefties so I’m not sure how high up the order the Twins will hit him.
Buxton returning to form vs left-handed pitchers will decide a great deal as to how good the Twins lineup looks vs a southpaw starter. New Twin, Jordan Luplow, has a career .837 OPS vs LHP and was brought in to help mend the Twins’ deficiencies in that area. I expect we’ll see Donovan Solano at 1st base vs a lefty and Christian Vazquez behind the dish, as well. Jeffers moves up the lineup and gets rest as a DH.
Eddie Julien has a shockingly low .448 OPS vs left-handers and he is a below average infielder. He gets the hook if/when the Twins bat vs a southpaw starter. Alex Kirilloff and Matt Wallner have seen similar declines, when facing pitchers who throw from the same side they hit, this season.
Correa has been much better vs lefties during his dreadful season, than vs righties. In reality, there’s no way the Twins keep him out of their playoff lineup vs any pitcher, no matter how poorly he’s been in 2023. Royce Lewis, Jorge Polanco and the aforementioned Max Kepler all get the nod, no matter which hand the pitcher throws with.
There is still a lot of baseball to play before we reach the MLB Postseason but there’s no doubt the Minnesota Twins will be a much scarier team if Byron Buxton can get his offensive mojo back and return to centerfield. Beyond that, fans just have to pray for the rest of the lineup and starting pitchers to stay healthy.
Eric Strack | Minnesota Sports Fan