Twins stick with Plouffe at third base
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- All winter, Trevor Plouffe heard the trade chatter he tried so hard to avoid. His agent relayed blips on the radar while ballplayers with whom the Twins third baseman worked out broached the what-ifs about Minnesota's evolving...
FORT MYERS, Fla. - All winter, Trevor Plouffe heard the trade chatter he tried so hard to avoid.
His agent relayed blips on the radar while ballplayers with whom the Twins third baseman worked out broached the what-ifs about Minnesota’s evolving roster.
Miguel Sano made it to the Promised Land, Byung Ho Park was coming from South Korea. And St. Paul’s favorite son Joe Mauer wasn’t going anywhere.
Three elephants in the room, only two corner infield positions, and Plouffe was the asset to leverage into acquiring more pitching help, according to armchair general managers outside Minnesota’s front office.
Twins GM Terry Ryan said he never considered trading the team’s leading run producer the past two seasons, the cleanup hitter who has matured into a clubhouse leader and durable fielder after a disastrous big-league debut at shortstop.
Ryan and manager Paul Molitor assured Plouffe as much throughout the offseason.
“I knew things were going on,” Plouffe said this week. “But our general manager and manager told me they wanted me here to play third base. I tend to trust guys like that. Molly and Terry are pretty honest with you.”
Shifting Plouffe to another position following his shortstop foibles and aborted experiments at second base and outfield was not a viable option.
Mauer and his prohibitive contract were anchored at first base after concussions ended his catching career. Park was ticketed to back up Mauer when he was not in the lineup as designated hitter.
So the Twins moved the 260-pound Sano from his natural spot at third base to right field this spring, a risky defensive gambit to preserve Plouffe’s hard-earned position and keep their bats in the everyday lineup.
“He’s in the prime of his career. I don’t see where we should be doing that,” Ryan said about trading Plouffe. “I know it’s been talked about a lot, but it never came from in here. Most of that’s because of the right fielder. If we didn’t have him in-house, we wouldn’t have heard about it.
But because of (Sano), it was a story most of the winter.”
Still, Ryan was asked if teams inquired about Plouffe, 29.
“No, because we weren’t looking to trade him,” Ryan said. “I’m not one of those guys who likes to put the bait out there unless I’m serious. It’s a waste of people’s time. He’s starting to settle in. It just didn’t make much sense.”
Only Mauer has been with the organization longer than Plouffe, whom the Twins drafted 20th overall in 2004 - two picks ahead of closer Glen Perkins.
He has slugged .426 with 74 home runs over the past four seasons. Plouffe hit 24 home runs in 2012 and 22 last year to join Corey Koskie (twice) and Gary Gaetti (six times) as the only Twins third basemen with multiple seasons of 20 homers or more.
Molitor said late in camp he liked the powerful right-handed combination of Sano and Plouffe hitting Nos. 3-4 - the would-be third baseman protected in the lineup by the veteran who stayed put.
“He’s probably not going to hit 40 (home runs), but we all know that he’s capable of hitting in that slot because he knows how to get a hit and he knows how to get it over the fence now and then,” Molitor said.
“I think he’s capable of doing more.”
Plouffe relishes batting behind Sano, the heralded slugger who hit 18 home runs in a half season of at-bats in 2015. Moreover, Sano has shown more discipline at the plate, working pitchers deeper into counts and drawing plenty of walks during spring training games.
“I know Sano’s going to take good at-bats in front of me,” said Plouffe, “I know pitchers are sometimes going to pitch around him. If there’s an open base, then it’s going to be my job to drive the runs in. I’m ready for that. I’m capable of it.”
Plouffe carries himself with the swagger of a cleanup hitter, but it was not that long ago his confidence was in tatters.
Drafted as a shortstop out of an all-boys Catholic high school in Los Angeles, Plouffe steadily progressed through the Twins system before being promoted to the big leagues in May 2010 to replace an injured J.J. Hardy.
He struggled at the plate, batting just .146 in 22 games. That was a joyride compared to the defensive train wreck Plouffe became in 2011.
In just 45 games at shortstop Plouffe committed 11 errors, turning the seats behind first base at Target Field into a mandatory hard-hat area. His career as a middle infielder was finished.
The Twins dispatched Plouffe to the minors to learn how to play outfield. He embraced the transition and became a serviceable option in left or right field.
However, the experience was unnerving for a young ballplayer trying to prove he belonged.
“There were days I struggled with confidence, for sure; especially when you’re coming up, you’re not having success - you question yourself,” Plouffe said. “But I knew in the back of my mind I could play here. That’s one of the hardest things, is genuinely feeling you belong, because it’s hard. It’s the big leagues. It’ll humble you.”
Plouffe credits Mauer, Justin Morneau and Josh Willingham with mentoring him through tough times, recounting for him their own crises of confidence as novices.
“All they ever talked about was getting into a routine and preparing the same way, so when you play games you realize it really is just the game you’ve been playing all your life.”
Former Twins manager Ron Gardenhire tapped Plouffe in midseason 2012 to fortify third base after Danny Valencia failed to lock down the position.
Since becoming the Opening Day starter in 2013, Plouffe has worked diligently to learn the nuances of the hot corner, from his footwork and throwing angles to positioning himself against opposing hitters.
All of which helps compensate for the more limited lateral range Plouffe has since growing into a 6-foot-2, 216-pound big leaguer.
Plouffe’s resiliency has paid dividends. His .972 fielding percentage last year ranked third among MLB third basemen behind Tampa Bay’s Evan Longoria (.976) and Miami’s Martin Prado (.976).
“I think shortstop is the coolest position in the game, but you’ve got to be real with yourself,” Plouffe said. “I can always tell people I made it to the big leagues as a shortstop, so that’s cool. It takes a special type of athlete to man that position.”
Plouffe has remained healthy enough to average 139 games since becoming the everyday third baseman. Molitor referenced Plouffe’s durability when talking about how leaders mature during their careers, from initially striving for respect and job security into playing to win.
“He wants to continue to perform well, I know that,” Molitor said. “But he wants to find a way to win.”
This is a pivotal season for Plouffe to secure a long-term commitment from the Twins, who emerged as a contender in 2015 following four consecutive seasons of 90-plus losses.
The team avoided arbitration in January, agreeing on a $7.25 million contract over the $4.8 million he earned in 2015. Plouffe’s salary ranks ninth among MLB third basemen behind David Wright’s $20 million contract with the New York Mets.
“That’s something that will take care of itself if you work hard and play the game the right way,” Plouffe said of a long-term deal. “If we win, that’s the main thing. You see teams that win keep those guys together. That’s what I’m hoping for here. I want to be here for a while. If we put together a good season that’ll help make that happen.
“For me, I’d rather just win. We lost for so many years here. I know if we’re winning, I’m going to be doing all right.”