What a Byron Buxton Contract Extension Would Look Like
Image courtesy of © Brad Rempel-USA TODAY SportsBuxton, 27, is as tough a player to compare to any other as can be found in the modern game. He has all of the individual tools to be one of the game’s dozen best players, but has never assembled and demonstrated them all in conjunction over a full season. Moreover, and relatedly, he’s suffered numerous injuries, which have both slowed his development and made him an impossible player upon whom to rely on an everyday basis.
The tantalizing upside of Buxton isn’t something for which the Twins can afford to pay — not because they don’t have enough money to do so, or because he’d be too unwilling to give it up, but because the odds that he will fully realize it are far too long. Any extension for Buxton has to be built around the player he has been to this point in his career, with the understanding that he might not have yet reached his peak and that extending him beyond his term of team control involves the team acknowledging its faith in him and investing in some measure of that upside.
Outfielders who attain four-plus years of big-league service rarely sign extensions to take them past their organic free-agent period. Over the last decade, only 16 such players have signed multiyear deals, according to MLB Trade Rumors’s Extension Tracker. Of those, all but a small handful were two-year deals that gave the team cost certainty and the player insurance against a down year, but which didn’t extend the term of team control. Two exceptions offer us a glimpse of a possible Buxton deal’s structure.
In March 2012, the Royals signed left fielder Alex Gordon to an extension covering four seasons, plus a player option for 2016. The deal guaranteed Gordon as much as $50 million, if he exercised the option, or $37.5 million, if he opted for free agency after 2015. (He did so, and re-signed with the team for $72 million over four years.) Gordon and the Royals had previously agreed to a one-year deal for 2012 at just under $4.8 million, but the new deal paid him $6 million for that season, with salary increases in each subsequent year.
Like Buxton, Gordon was a former second overall pick who took an unusually long time to establish himself as a good player in the big leagues. It was only in the 2011 season, just prior to signing the extension, that he emerged as a full-fledged star. He was considerably better than Buxton in that platform season, with a very broad base of skills (excellent defense, albeit in left field; power; speed; and plate discipline). However, he was also a year older, and got nearly 700 plate appearances in the year that so impressed his team. Buxton had any such opportunity stolen from him in 2020, not only by continued injury trouble, but by the pandemic.
Gordon’s similar prospect pedigree and obvious potential make him a fair comp for Buxton, but that deal was so long ago (and the apparent certitude of his future production so much higher) that it’s an imperfect template for a Buxton extension. Our other precedent is much more recent, and shares Buxton’s profile more closely: an extremely athletic, very young, tooled-up center fielder, but with red flags attached to their scouting report when it comes to both plate approach and durability.
During the rush of extensions signed in the spring of 2019, the Blue Jays elected to lock up their incumbent center fielder, Randal Grichuk. Although not a Buxton-caliber defender in center, Grichuk had acquitted himself as a semi-regular there, and provided plus defense whenever slid to an outfield corner. In 2018, his first season with the Jays, he had set career highs with 58 extra-base hits and 1.9 WARP, despite not even playing enough to qualify for the batting title. He was 26 during that campaign, and 27 when he signed his deal, as Buxton would be if he signed an extension this spring.
Grichuk signed a five-year deal guaranteeing him $52 million. It replaced a one-year deal worth $5 million, and provided him with an immediate raise to $7 million, plus signing bonuses paid out mostly in 2019 and 2020. He would have made $12 million in 2020, had the full season been played, but that was the highest-salaried season of the contract. In each of the next three years, he will make $9.3 million.
In 2019, Grichuk delivered 31 home runs, but given his strikeout-to-walk ratio and the way balls flew out of big-league parks that year, that wasn’t an especially impressive figure. He has been worth just 0.6 total WARP since the start of 2019, thanks in part to defensive collapse. At this point, his deal is viewed as moderately bad money, but given the structure of the contract, he’s not a huge burden on the Jays, and he will probably still deliver some value as a corner outfielder and down-lineup power bat over the next season or two.
Again, Buxton’s speed and defensive chops give him a higher floor than Grichuk has. Then again, his approach is as hacktastic as Grichuk’s, and his injury track record is impossible to ignore. That’s why he and his agents at Jet Sports Management would probably be open to an extension like Grichuk’s. The Twins might even be able to get him to agree to a deal more like Gordon’s, with four seasons and more modest salary guarantees but a player option for his age-31 season, especially if they’re willing to slightly boost his 2021 salary of $5.1 million, the way each of those deals did.
Consider one more relevant precedent, in the news within the last 48 hours: Jackie Bradley, Jr. Like Buxton, Bradley spent his 20s as a brilliant defensive center fielder with obvious offensive tools, but never consistently produced at an above-average level at the plate. Upon reaching free agency (and on the eve of his 31st birthday), Bradley was stranded on the open market, having to sign for two years and $24 million three weeks after spring training began. That’s what awaits Buxton if he doesn’t make good on his potential within the next two seasons; he would and should pounce on a handsome offer to avoid that downside. The only question is whether the Twins would be willing to make such an offer.
There’s a strong case to be made for doing so. Again, consider the Bradley signing, by the Brewers. He joins an outfield that already featured three established, highly-paid veterans, in Christian Yelich, Lorenzo Cain, and Avisaíl García. Even without the designated hitter spot into which to stick one of those four, the Brewers wanted Bradley, to balance that corps and cover for its weaknesses. Bradley complements Cain and García, who both hit right-handed, and whose bodies and ages suggest a lack of defensive value in the coming season. He also insures the team against further injury trouble for any of the three incumbents, all of whom have had those issues recently.
Keeping Buxton around would similarly balance the Twins’ prospective outfield of the future, currently projected to lean to the left (Alex Kirilloff, Trevor Larnach, and Max Kepler). He wouldn’t block the potential emergence of Gilberto Celestino, because Celestino could and would step in when Buxton deals with injuries or prolonged offensive slumps, as well as spelling the steadier corner outfielders. Given everything Buxton can do on the diamond, and the potential for a true superstar turn, the Twins should be willing to risk carrying him as a semi-regular making an eight-figure salary into the middle of the decade. Buxton should be eager to accept that small infringement on his earning potential, given the security and upside he would gain in the process.
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