Center field may not be the Yankees’ most pressing need at the moment – shortstop comfortably tops that list – but it remains an area to address given the current lack of depth. Aaron Hicks is atop the depth chart, but as good as his elevated walk rate is for the lineup, he is risky for 2022 because he had a 76 wRC+ and only played a couple of months in 2021, losing most of the campaign with a wrist injury that eventually required surgery.
Wrist injuries, for hitters, can be very problematic and have the potential to affect power. It’s possible that Hicks doesn’t really hits his stride until the summer. But it’s just that: a possibility. Perhaps he comes back raking from Day One. However, his defense has been declining for a couple of years and he is no longer an asset in center.
After losing Brett Gardner (at least for now), Greg Allen, and Tim Locastro, only Aaron Judge and Joey Gallo are capable of playing center behind Hicks, and both are, very clearly, better suited on the corners. Perhaps the Yankees should pursue jack-of-all-trades Chris Taylor, or go to the trade market.
Now, there aren’t many good center fielders who could become available. However, one of them is a potentially game-changing talent: Byron Buxton. The Minnesota Twins traded several players who represented present or future expenses during the deadline, presumably to fund their bid to keep Buxton long-term.
The player is about to enter his third and final year of salary arbitration. He is projected to make around $7.3 million in 2022, per MLB Trade Rumors. That’s a number that should be manageable for the Yankees if they decide to make a run at him, providing they are serious about having more money (and willingness) to spend.
There would be two problems, though: agreeing on a return package with the Twins and the fact he would be a rental… unless the Yankees can extend him.
You also have to think it could be a slap on the face for franchise player Aaron Judge to see the Yankees extend a newcomer before him, especially if they ultimately can’t agree on a long-term deal.
To this point, the Twins haven’t been able to sign Buxton to an extension. It’s difficult to agree on the value of a talented, All-Star hitter in his prime years (he will soon turn 28) who plays a premium position as well as Buxton, but with so many problems staying healthy.
Buxton has played 355 out of 708 possible games since 2017, good for 50.14 percent. In 2021, his name appeared on the box score 61 times, but that was enough for him to lead the Twins in fWAR with 4.2. Impressive.
This season, the dynamic, two-way center fielder hit .306/.358/.647 with 19 home runs, 50 runs, 32 RBI, and nine steals in just 254 plate appearances. He had a phenomenal 169 wRC+, and while small sample size alarms apply, he was absolutely dominant both at the plate and on the field.
When he’s healthy, Buxton is a joy to watch. He was in the 99th percentile in sprint speed, 96th percentile in max exit velocity, and 94th percentile in Outs Above Average in 2021. His average home run traveled 417 feet, good for 11th place out of 328 players with at least 150 batted ball events.
In other words, Buxton can hit the ball really hard (and he did it frequently in 2021, with a 53.2 hard-hit rate), run very fast, and play elite defense in center
field. If it weren’t for his low walk rate (5.1 percent in 2021, 5.9 percent for his career) and health issues, we may be talking about a surefire top-five player in baseball.
Not only was this a spectacular catch, even by Byron Buxton’s standards, it kept the tying run from scoring and may have kept the #MNTwins from another bullpen meltdown.— Aaron Gleeman (@AaronGleeman) April 21, 2021
High-leverage, potentially game-saving defense. And the guy is hitting .429, too.pic.twitter.com/s4KS5hqSFf
If the Yankees can somehow have Buxton and Judge in the same outfield for the next, say, six or seven years, they would be very, very hard to beat. For now, though, he would come as a rental, but he may very well be worth the trouble depending on the price to pay. One year of a Joey Gallo-Buxton-Judge alignment would make the Yankees not only particularly powerful on offense, but it would also be a fantastic defensive outfield.
Buxton deal with Twins, per source: Seven years, $100M. Full no-trade clause.— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) November 28, 2021
This would seem to settle the question of Buxton’s future for now. He’s staying in Minnesota.