The Twins didn’t enter the 2023 season expecting or intending for Byron Buxton to turn into a full-time designated hitter.
Their preference, since trading full-time designated hitter Nelson Cruz away in 2021, has been to use that spot to rotate players in and out, giving them a day off their feet as needed while keeping their bat in the lineup.
But they were unable to do that for most of last season.
Buxton underwent knee surgery late in the 2022 season, and come spring training, the Twins took their time as he got ramped up for the season. Eventually, the Twins laid out a plan in which he would start the season at designated hitter before ultimately building off of that and moving into playing center field.
That didn’t happen.
Buxton never appeared in a major-league game in center field, instead serving as the team’s everyday designated hitter for much of the season. It was a difficult year offensively for the star, who hit .207 with a .732 OPS — a full 100 points lower than a year earlier — in 85 games.
Buxton spoke multiple times about the adjustment to the role and the mental difficulties that came with it — he could no longer shake off a tough day at the plate by robbing an opposing batter of a hit or making an impact defensively.
When he strained his hamstring, landed on the injured list and ultimately missed the final two months of the season dealing with both hamstring and knee issues, the Twins rotated that role around.
Rookie Edouard Julien occupied the spot the second-most games behind Buxton — when both Julien and Jorge Polanco were healthy, the Twins preferred to play Polanco, the superior defender of the two, at second base.
Buxton had a second surgery on his knee earlier this month, and Twins president of baseball operations Derek Falvey has expressed his hope that Buxton can get back out into center field next year.
But even if Buxton does get back to playing the field next season, it seems highly likely that he still will be taking a number of DH at-bats as the Twins work to keep him as healthy and productive as possible. Another year of him only DHing, unable to play the field at all like this year, would represent a worst-case scenario for both the Twins and Buxton.
When Buxton is not in the role, it seems likely the Twins would return to their rotation of players, with Julien a likely candidate to see a good number of at-bats at DH, particularly if Polanco is back and playing second base.