FORT MYERS, FLA. – As Byron Buxton stood in the batter’s box Tuesday, you could detect a smile. As the young outfielder watched pitches go by, picked out an occasional one and lined it into the outfield, the smile only got bigger. When Buxton walked back to the dugout, though the workout amounted to only 16 pitches and seven swings, you couldn’t miss the grin — on his coach’s face.
“It looked good. He’s going in the right way,” hitting coach Rudy Hernandez said after Buxton faced live pitching, including a few from major leaguer Homer Bailey, for the first time since Aug. 25. “He’s using his front side like he used to. When he got here, his [shoulder] was weak. Now he’s strong, straight to the ball. Strength has gotten a lot better. It’s a good sign.”
And it’s one the Twins have longed for ever since Buxton underwent surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder last September. The center fielder has been limited to fielding and baserunning drills during camp while slowly working the last remnants of soreness out of his shoulder in the batting cage. And while he clearly is much closer to being ready to play, Tuesday’s batting practice did not provide any clarity on the biggest question of the spring: When?
“I just had surgery, so I’m not going to speed up any process. Everyone knows where I’m at — obviously I want to make Opening Day, but if [readiness] isn’t here, it’s not here,” Buxton said. “[I’ll] keep doing what I’m doing, keep working hard, and go from there.”
Sixteen days remain between Buxton’s first look at live pitching and the season opener in Oakland, and while that might seem like plenty of time to work his way back, the Twins — and Buxton — are adamant that the season’s starting line is not Buxton’s finish line. The Twins’ projections always had Buxton returning in mid-March, President of Baseball Operations Derek Falvey pointed out, but nobody ever committed to playing March 26. And both sides are adamant that Buxton won’t start the season until his shoulder is 100% healthy.
“Coming back from surgery, we knew he was going to be a little bit behind the rest of the players in camp coming in,” Falvey said. The Twins’ approach “has been on the more conservative end of the spectrum, for sure. We’re thinking big picture, long-term for Byron, not necessarily getting him as ready as possible just for our sake.”
Still, Tuesday’s milestone, perhaps uneventful to watch, was significant nevertheless.
“It’s pretty fun,” said Buxton, who faced 90-mph velocity from a pitching machine for the first time Monday. “It’s baseball. If I swing and miss, that’s fine, too. It’s just the first day, so I was up there basically looking at pitches, trying to swing at good pitches, see how the arm feels.”
That’s the critical part.
“A little soreness here and there, but for the most part, the pain is gone. That’s a relief,” said the 26-year-old outfielder, who has been cleared for all baseball activities. “I have to see what tomorrow holds. How I feel coming in tomorrow will probably dictate anything we do. So another big day tomorrow.”
Buxton has been told to expect another session of full-speed batting practice Thursday, with the hope he can take part in a game soon.
“I don’t think it will be too long,” said manager Rocco Baldelli, who wasn’t present at Buxton’s session but received a report from the staff members on hand.
Including Hernandez, who liked what he saw.
“We usually watch his legs, make sure his stance is good. But at the same time, he had shoulder surgery, so we were watching that,” Hernandez said. “It looks like [his swing] is in the right spot. He’s doing a lot better. It looks good.”