Buxton, Twins Combine on Fascinating Extension

For years, 2022 has loomed large in the Minnesota Twins’ long-term planning. Their two franchise cornerstones, Byron Buxton and José Berríos, were both due to hit free agency after the 2022 season, which meant the team constructed many of its long-term plans with that year as a pivot point. Even when they traded Berríos for prospects at the 2021 deadline, next year still looked like a potential last hurrah with the current core before turning the team over to new blood.

Forget that idea. On Sunday, the Twins and Buxton agreed to a seven-year, $100 million contract extension that will keep him in Minnesota through the 2028 season; it also includes a full no-trade clause. The gem of Minnesota’s last rebuild will now be the face of the franchise throughout the peak of his career.

2021 was a microcosm of Buxton’s career to date. He was electric when he played, batting .306/.358/.647 with 19 home runs in only 254 plate appearances. He clubbed 19 doubles, stole nine bases (against just a single time getting caught), and channeled his aggression on pitches in the zone without flailing wildly. In the field, he was as good as ever, which is pretty darn good. Buxton is perennially one of the best center fielders in baseball, and this year was no exception. Every defensive metric agreed he was one of the best per-game defenders in the majors. Combine that with his offense, and he was worth 4.2 WAR in only 61 games.

But his health has been a concern, to say the least. Buxton has only played 100 games in a season once, in 2017. He’s hurt himself in all manner of ways — slamming into walls, getting hit by pitches, soft-tissue injuries, you name it. To the extent that health is a skill, it’s one that Buxton has yet to demonstrate, and that’s worrisome for a player who reached the majors in 2015.

In a nutshell, Buxton is either hurt or great. 2021 was by far his best season with the bat, but he’s shown flashes before. Projection systems don’t think he’s going to repeat last season’s production, but they like his offense far more than his career 99 wRC+ line. Steamer pegs him for a 123 2RC+ in 2022, and look at this ZiPS deliciousness:

ZiPS Projection – Byron Buxton
2022 .269 .311 .544 316 53 85 23 2 20 52 16 12 127 7 3.1
2023 .265 .307 .544 298 49 79 22 2 19 49 15 10 126 7 2.8
2024 .267 .310 .548 292 49 78 21 2 19 49 15 10 128 6 2.8
2025 .265 .309 .530 283 46 75 20 2 17 46 15 10 124 6 2.6
2026 .262 .306 .524 271 43 71 19 2 16 42 14 8 121 5 2.3
2027 .258 .299 .492 256 39 66 17 2 13 37 12 7 111 5 1.8
2028 .248 .287 .463 242 35 60 15 2 11 33 11 6 101 4 1.3

Sure, Buxton gets tiny playing time projections — reasonably so given his history. If he does put a full season together one of these years, though, it would likely be an excellent one, and his contract takes that into account.

The top line of this deal looks like a good rate for Minnesota. The contract will pay him $10 million in 2022, then $15 million for each of the subsequent six years. The length of the deal offers Buxton protection if his injury issues eat into his production, but $15 million a year doesn’t generally get you someone with this kind of all-around talent. A healthy Buxton is a borderline MVP candidate in an average-rate-stat year, not a decent position player.

To compensate Buxton for that fact, he and the Twins agreed on an interesting contract structure. In each year of his deal, Buxton can add a hefty sum to his salary based on MVP voting. Should he win the award, he’ll receive an $8 million bonus that year. Finishing second gets him $7 million, third $6 million, and so on, down to $3 million for a 6th-10th place finish. You don’t need me to tell you this; that’s a healthy kicker. Brandon Lowe finished 10th in MVP voting this year on the back of a 5.2 WAR season. Buxton’s not a lock to do that, obviously, but if he does start racking up 6-WAR seasons, he’ll get paid for it.

The Twins threw in some further incentives for health. Buxton will receive $500,000 for plate appearance milestones — 502, 533, 567, 600, and 625. Aside from making my brain hurt by varying the number of PAs between incentives, the main point of this deal is to give Buxton more money if he stays on the field. In a hypothetical season where Buxton competes for an MVP award, he could take home upwards of $25 million dollars, a salary befitting an MVP.

Thinking about how that kind of salary fits into a team budget is interesting. It’s akin to a binary deal — $15 million if Buxton doesn’t make a huge impact on the team’s fortunes, and $18-25 million if he does. Luckily for the team, that’s positively correlated with their success. If Buxton plays well enough to hit the top end of his salary range, it’s far more likely that the team does well. That generally means more gate receipts and a higher chance at playoff games, which in turn means more money to spend on Buxton’s higher salary. It’s a virtuous circle, though it’s of course possible for Buxton to play badly in a Twins playoff run, or play well in a rough season.

Still, this deal tends to link Buxton’s success with the team’s. That means that the team can essentially flex spend; they can spend up to what they’re willing to pay in a down season without worrying too much about Buxton’s contract incentives. If he hits them, great! They’re unlikely to come back to bite the club, which is a nifty feature in a contract for an injury-prone star.

How different is this deal from a more standard “here’s your money, go play hard” type? I tried to come up with a rough approximation. If you do the “add-up-the-WAR” method of contract valuation and account for the year of arbitration Buxton is forgoing, this deal looks almost perfectly on-market. I’ve used a starting point of $7.3 million per win (ZiPS has been using $7.2 million this offseason), but you can vary that number slightly and end up with similar results.

For someone with plate appearance projections in the low 300s, that’s a strange way of looking at things. ZiPS projects Buxton to produce nearly 5 WAR per 600 plate appearances over the course of this deal. If he accumulated 550 plate appearances in each of the next seven seasons, he’d merit a deal worth something like $200 million. He’d also hit roughly $35 million in incentives, depending on how awards voting went. That’s very unlikely to happen, but it’s certainly within the range of possible outcomes — it’s not as though Buxton has to get hurt every year.

To account for the uncertainty, I came up with a very simple rule of thumb. I gave Buxton a 15% chance of reaching 600 plate appearances in a given year (slightly lower in the final two years of the deal), which let me approximate the value of the playing time incentives. Then, I fitted a WAR distribution to his central projections — basically, that works out to him making an average of $6 million if he outperforms his per-PA projections and also plays a full season, though of course the odds of turning in that type of performance decline as he ages.

In all, Buxton projects to earn an average of $6.5 million from his incentives. That seems tiny! If you believe my approximations, however, there’s a 35% chance that he never even reaches 600 plate appearances in a single year, and the PA bonuses below that aren’t enough to push him over the top. It’s also hard to have a high MVP finish without playing a full season, which works against him. If the Twins had simply added $6.5 million to the contract — actually, let’s just say $10 million to ward against my assumptions being too conservative — no one would look at the deal much differently than the current headlines.

To me, that’s the sign of a well-structured incentive. Most of the time, it won’t cost the Twins very much. When Buxton does cash in, the team will be happy to pay — they’re getting far more out of him than the median projection in those years. If he ends up putting together a string of abbreviated seasons with one MVP-caliber spike in the middle, the deal will compensate him correctly for that. If I haven’t already made it clear, I love what the Twins did here. They used incentives cleverly to produce a deal that makes sense for both sides.

Buxton is now the only big, long-term guarantee on Minnesota’s books, but they have a bevy of players ready to help him. Max Kepler has an option that could keep him under team control through 2024; Jorge Polanco could be a Twin through ‘25. Behind them, the team has early-arb or pre-arb players like Luis Arraez and Alex Kirilloff, as well as a pile of interesting but unproven pitchers. Finally, they’ve got prospects — we currently rank their farm system 10th in baseball, and plenty of those prospects will be ready for big league action in the next year or two.

The Twins are far from a finished product. They’re going to need a lot of pitching to compete for playoff berths; their current rotation is firmly in the “interesting” rather than “excellent” camp. They’ll also need to pair a few more hitters with Buxton, at least in the long run; Josh Donaldson can’t carry that weight alone, and his contract is up after 2023 in any case.

Despite that, this extension goes a long way towards explaining the Twins’ intentions next year and beyond. Previously, the team’s set of long-term commitments was nonexistent; if they wanted to tilt back into a tear-down-and-rebuild phase after this year, however ill-intentioned it might look to outside observers, the money would allow it. Now, they have too solid of a core for that to make sense. From that perspective, this deal is everything a Twins fan could ask for — and that’s before we consider what might happen if Buxton spikes an MVP season or two down the line.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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5 months ago

> You don’t need me to tell you this; that’s a healthy kicker. Brandon Lowe finished 10th in MVP voting this year on the back of a 5.2 WAR season. Buxton’s not a lock to do that, obviously, but if he does start racking up 6-WAR seasons, he’ll get paid for it.

I mean… not really? $8m is obviously a big bonus in the context of bonuses generally… but in the context of this deal it’s really not anything much. If Buxton wins an MVP he’ll either make $18m or $23m in that season. Which is very cheap for a season of that caliber.

5 months ago
Reply to  nkunke1

“Very cheap” is a stretch – Ohtani just won the MVP making $3 million, and even Harper is making “only” ~$27.5 million per year, only a tick above Buxton’s max potential earnings year. And especially in the context of Buxton’s base salary, the potential bonuses are huge. He can basically up his salary by 75% in any given year based on his performance. Really cool deal for both sides!