MINNEAPOLIS — Byron Buxton stood at his locker after the most painful at-bat of his career on Wednesday night and said the top priority of the offseason was to get his right knee healthy.
The Minnesota Twins outfielder took a significant step in that direction Friday morning, undergoing arthroscopic surgery to alleviate pressure he felt in his patella tendon. In particular, doctors excised the plica to reduce stress with the patellar tendinitis Buxton experienced this past season.
Out from Aug. 2 until he popped out during a pinch hit appearance in the team’s season-ending, Game 4 loss on Wednesday, Buxton was routinely slowed by his knee throughout the season. Injuries limited Buxton to 85 games played — all as designated hitter. He batted .207/.294/.438 with 17 home runs.
Along with a Sept. 2022 procedure in another area, Friday was the second time Buxton underwent knee surgery.
“We’re hopeful that this will get him on track,” Twins president of baseball operations Derek Falvey said. “It obviously wasn’t the season Byron wanted from a physical standpoint. We did all we could throughout the course of the year to try to put him in the best position to be successful. He worked really hard. He kept himself ready, obviously kept himself ready until the last game of the season and gave himself a chance there. But our expectation and our hope is that we’ll get him through the offseason and get him to spring training ready to go.”
Though he rehabbed all offseason following his procedure 13 months ago, Buxton — who is under contract for five more seasons — never was able to appear in the field. Buxton underwent surgery during his All-Star campaign because of constant swelling in his knee, which needed to be drained. Falvey said Friday the previous procedure had a much longer timeline than this.
Asking team doctors to hold off on any official prognosis until after the season, Buxton only learned he’d need surgery following Wednesday’s game.
Though he was repeatedly slowed down as he attempted to return late in the year, Buxton requested team officials let him continue to prepare in case he could help the team. Buxton only took live batting practice in a few instances over the final few weeks of the season and didn’t do much running.
The Twins activated Buxton on the playoff roster prior to Game 4 when he replaced Alex Kirilloff, who will undergo a labrum repair on his non-throwing shoulder on Oct. 24.
“Get healthy,” Buxton said. “Whatever it takes to just get me right. That’s all that matters to me right now. … I told them not to bring any of that up while we were here in the playoffs. Wanted to focus on getting back to the plate, so honestly, I haven’t really spoken to them too much about the back end of this, because I didn’t want to hear about it.”
When he stepped to the plate in the eighth inning, with Twins fans dreaming of a Kirk Gibson moment, Buxton received some of the loudest fan applause of the season.
“That means the world,” Buxton said. “For me, it was all about just trying to keep that moment and cherish that moment. … It definitely gave me chills.”
The Twins hope Friday’s procedure provides Buxton relief.
Buxton said Wednesday he was available for anything except playing in the field. The Twins and Buxton will work toward returning the 2017 Gold Glove winner to center next season.
“Our goal is to get him ready to play center field,” Falvey said. “That’s his focus. That’s what he wants, and that’s what we all want.”
Falvey said Buxton’s patellar issue didn’t develop until after the season began. The Twins always planned to use Buxton in center after a slow buildup, allowing him to strengthen his surgically-repaired knee in April and let him play the outfield afterward.
Buxton got out to a good start, batting .258/.324/.557 with seven homers and 17 RBIs in March and April. Even though the Twins believe the latest procedure should benefit Buxton, they recognize he’ll continue to need treatment.
“When it flares up, it becomes painful for him and something that’s hard for him to do exactly what he wants to do on a baseball field,” Falvey said. “Much like any other tendinitis, it’s unfortunately something that usually, the only thing that calms it down is rest, recovery and then getting inflammation down, to then go start again. … He’ll have to manage it. We know that part. But ultimately, hopefully, we can manage it a little bit better going forward.”
Byron Buxton bat flip (Twin) city 💪
— The Athletic MLB (@TheAthleticMLB) April 26, 2023
What the Twins can expect from Buxton in the future, nobody is quite certain.
When healthy, Buxton is a dynamic player. From 2019 to 2022, he produced a .874 OPS and homered once every 13.65 at-bats. Even though struggled this season, striking out at the highest rate of his career, Buxton finished with a 98 OPS+, just a tick below the league average.
But similar to this season when they traded for Michael A. Taylor, the Twins must plan accordingly for potential absences from Buxton.
“We’re better with Byron Buxton,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. “And we’re a few plays away from going to the ALCS this year, really, without him, in the second half. It almost gets you excited that if we get this sorted out and we get him to a good spot, just what the team’s capable of. Because if you take a prime Byron Buxton and sprinkle it on top of what we were doing at the end of the year, that could be a very special type of situation. But we have to get to that point. … He’s going to do everything on his end that anyone could do to be ready. So other than that, I wouldn’t get too far ahead of anything. I would let the procedure take place. We have to see what the doctors say. We have to set our course going forward and put him in the best spot this offseason.”
Kirilloff set for surgery, timeline TBD
An injury that bugged Kirilloff since June will require him to undergo surgery for a third straight year. Kirilloff originally suffered a right shoulder strain after diving for a ball in June, an injury he aggravated again in late July and finally once more earlier this week.
Though treatment helped Kirilloff recover from the initial injury, he required a cortisone shot in August after landing on the injured list. Kirilloff returned to the lineup on Sept. 8 and hit .273/.312/.455 with three homers over his final 19 games played.
He continued to play through the injury in the postseason but wasn’t nearly as effective. Kirilloff, who had season-ending wrist surgeries in 2021 and 2022, informed Baldelli he could no longer go during Tuesday’s Game 3 loss and was pinch hit for in the middle of the game.
Though the severity of his labrum tear won’t be determined until Kirilloff is operated on, he and the Twins are optimistic because it’s the non-throwing shoulder. However, a timeline for recovery won’t be determined until after the surgery.
“He did a really nice job getting back,” Falvey said. “Obviously, when he was back and playing, you’re in the playoffs, you’re playing regularly, having to dive a little bit more, having to jar it from time to time, it got weak again and that’s ultimately what led to him coming off the roster.”
(Photo of Byron Buxton and Alex Kirilloff hugging on July 21: Brace Hemmelgarn / Minnesota Twins / Getty Images)