The Twins will celebrate Opening Day at Target Field on Thursday with fans allowed to be there in person again, hallelujah. Those lucky enough to score tickets probably have certain players they are most excited to watch.
Jose Berrios pitching. Nelson Cruz swinging for the fences. Luis Arraez gyrating in the batter's box. Andrelton Simmons performing magic tricks at shortstop.
My choice as headliner? Byron Buxton.
He has become the Twins' best all-around player. Their most valuable player. And, perhaps soon, their highest-paid player.
This is where things become complicated.
The center fielder's agent and Twins management engaged in contract discussions during spring training. A fictional snapshot of those negotiations:
Buxton's agent: Byron is reaching his prime and his ceiling is superstar level.
Twins: Yes, but injuries …
Buxton's agent: He's finally fulfilling his potential as a five-tool talent. He's showing power at the plate and is on a path to stardom.
Twins: Yes, but injuries …
Both sides would be correct, and therein lies the conundrum. A free agent after the 2022 season, Buxton is in line for a mega-contract. But how mega for a supreme talent who carries an extensive injury history?
The first week of this season is a perfect example of the tricky nature of Buxton's case. He already has missed one full game and part of two others because of an illness. He also has hit three home runs in five games, including the longest home run in his career at Milwaukee and the hardest-hit ball in exit velocity in his career at Detroit.
"Watching him work on taking this thing to the next level is going to be really interesting," manager Rocco Baldelli said.
At age 27, Buxton is displaying the skill set that has served as a teaser since being selected as the No. 2 overall pick in 2012. His speed and defense have always been constants. He has become more polished as a hitter, advancing from bottom-of-the-order fixture to a power source in the middle of the lineup.
Early in his career, he looked overmatched at the plate, with a strikeout percentage above 30%. Now he's driving the ball frequently with hard contact.
Buxton describes himself as being "mentally clear" and "probably in the best spot I've been as a baseball player."
"I feel confident enough now where it doesn't really matter what you throw to me," he said. "I'll sit on breaking pitches. I'm starting to realize how quick my hands are to react to fastballs. Once you get to that point, it's pretty scary."
This has long been the organizational plan, and hope: that Buxton would mature enough as a hitter to reach a level that allows him to be mentioned among the game's most dynamic players. He makes the Twins significantly more dangerous — and enjoyable to watch — when he's in the lineup and impacting the game offensively, defensively and with his blazing speed on the basepaths.
"He can do things that other people don't do out on the field," Baldelli said. "Watching him just completely change ballgames single-handedly is something that never gets old."
That brings massive value, of course, and the Twins must calculate that value on his next contract knowing his injury history. The conversation would be far more clear-cut without that smudge on Buxton's résumé, but it's impossible to ignore when projecting five years into the future.
The coaching staff has tried different things to minimize his injury risk, such as having Buxton play deeper in the outfield to lessen the impact when he crashes into the wall. But some injuries are entirely out of his control. They just happen by circumstance or bad luck.
This version of Buxton is what everyone has been anticipating for years. The best player when he takes the field. His next contract should and likely will reflect that.
The detached view would be to say, who cares what it costs the Pohlad family? Major League Baseball does not have a salary cap, meaning a billionaire owner is free to sign a player to a contract of any amount without impediment.
Sure, and no one ever complained about Joe Mauer's contract, right?