Speed. Power. Contact. Arm strength. Defense.
For years, these five skills, known as the “five tools,” have remained the primary criteria that scouts have used to discuss baseball players. To be a successful baseball player, you must possess multiple tools — for example, Gary Sánchez checks off the boxes for power (91st percentile in barrel percentage) and arm strength (his pop time to second base is tied for fourth-best in baseball), while DJ LeMahieu is known primarily for his contact and defense. Players who rank among the top rankings in three or four tools, like Aaron Judge — who combines arguably the best power bat in baseball with elite defensive ability, fantastic arm strength, and above-average speed — tend to be perennial All-Stars, the types of franchise players that every team looks to build around.
Five-tool players? They’re a different breed entirely. They’re your superstars, your faces of the game. They are the Mike Trouts of the world. Only a handful are spread throughout the league — Fernando Tatís Jr. and Mookie Betts, just to name two — and when one changes teams, the repercussions of the move reverberate throughout the league.
And one such talent may be on the move, as Minnesota Twins centerfielder Byron Buxton has reportedly rejected a contract extension. This news means that the Twins will almost certainly make him available on the trade market, either before Friday’s deadline or, more likely, this coming winter.
It’s easy to forget just how good Buxton is when he’s on the field, and why the Twins have been reluctant to give up on him. Among hitters with at least 50 balls in play this year, he ranks third in xBA (.322), behind only Ketel Marte and Michael Brantley and right above Judge. His .675 xSLG is first in baseball, right above Shohei Ohtani, and his barrel/plate appearance percentage of 14.5 ranks second to Ohtani. His 30.0 ft/sec spring speed is fifth in the league, behind Trea Turner, Tim Locastro, Jorge Mateo, and Eli White.
Buxton also plays elite defense — his 55 career Outs Above Average are the fifth-most among outfielders since Statcast began tracking in 2016, and he is one of just two active outfielders in baseball with “Platinum Glove Winner” on his resume. While arm strength data is hard to find*, his throws home have been clocked as as high as 98.6 mph in 2019 and 99.4 mph in 2016. Further, his ESPN scouting report out of high school gave him a 55/60 score on the 20-80 scale, saying, “Buxton has a strong arm — he’s touched 94 mph from the mound” while noting that he served as his high school football team’s starting quarterback.
*Statcast unfortunately does not make its data available to the public, although it is sometimes referenced on YES broadcasts
Buxton is a five-tool athlete, plain and simple; he was twice MLB Pipeline’s number one prospect for a reason, after all. Unfortunately, there’s also a very good reason why he and the Twins struggled to come to terms on an extension. Invited to spring training in 2014 after just his first full season in the minors, Buxton injured his left wrist diving for a ball and began the season on the then-DL; he reinjured the wrist just five games after his return, then had his season end after suffering a concussion during a collision with a teammate.
Just 10 games after making his MLB debut the following year, Buxton sprained his thumb, and he spent the next six weeks on the shelf. He suffered from knee contusions and back spasms in 2016, while 2017 saw the onset of the migraines that plagued him at the beginning of 2018. The 2019 season saw Buxton miss time with yet another concussion — this time suffered after making a diving catch in Cleveland — in addition to a dislocated shoulder that ultimately resulted in season-ending surgery to repair a damaged labrum. In 2020, he was placed on the IL on August 20th due to left shoulder inflammation, and while he did make it back in September, the injury resulted in his absence from the Twins’ starting lineup in their final game of the season. Finally, this year, Buxton has played only 27 games, first hitting the IL due to a hip strain, and then, almost immediately after returning, fracturing his wrist after being hit by a pitch.
All of this — plus a couple of demotions to the minor leagues in 2016 and 2018 (one unwarranted) — means that Buxton has played in only 413 of a possible 807 games at the Major League level, barely more than half; cut that down to just the last three years, and he’s been active for fewer than half the games. And, unfortunately, it’s hard to see that changing, as part of his problem is that he plays the game at 150 percent every play — which is good, because you want players giving it their all on every play, but also bad, because that causes players to crash into walls and teammates on a regular basis.
Where does this leave the Yankees? With Buxton able to hit free agency after the 2022 season, we’re at the point where extensions are on the table. But what should an extension look like for a five-tool player with talent and injuries in equal measure? That’s a hard question to answer — Minnesota offered a seven-year deal with $80 million in guarantees and incentives that would have increased it an unknown amount, but the deal was rejected. While Buxton likely won’t receive as much as he would prefer due to his injury history, he’s almost certainly going to cost a pretty penny ... and that’s even before thinking about the prospect cost required to get him.
At the end of the day, I’d be very surprised if the Twins were to move Buxton this week — he is, after all, currently on the injured list, with little timetable for a return. And I’m not convinced, either, that he makes sense for the Yankees, who have their own small army of injury-prone outfielders already. But players with Buxton’s talent don’t come around often, and it would behoove the Yankees to at least do their due diligence — because whatever team is able to keep Buxton on the field and off the shelf is going to reap immense rewards. For that reason alone, Buxton might be worth the risk.