Stability at third base and right-handed power have both been in short supply for the Twins over the past decade or so. Trevor Plouffe has developed into one of the team’s most interesting commodities because he has the potential to fill both needs, and could do so at a relatively low cost for the next several years.
As a homegrown talent, Plouffe is precisely the type of player the Twins want to structure their rebuild around, but clearly they still hold reservations about him. Inconsistency and defensive question marks have plagued him throughout his career and continue to keep decision-makers on the fence about his value going forward. He’s 26 and entering his first season with a full-time MLB job secured, so this campaign will be critical toward determining his future with the team.
To call Plouffe’s midseason tear a “hot streak” seems to undersell it. For an extended period of time last year, he was a scorching inferno, incinerating everything he came into contact with. I mean, seriously, 18 homers in 39 games? A .638 slugging percentage over a two-month stretch? That’s silly. Those numbers aren’t possible for a player that doesn’t possess some serious talent.
Of course, Plouffe’s ability has never really been in question. There’s a reason the Twins drafted him in the first round and moved him steadily through their system despite relatively modest numbers in the lower levels. With his size, his strength and his quick wrists, Plouffe has always displayed above-average pop for a middle infielder.
Through his first 222 major-league games, the downside is that he’s been nudged out of the middle infield, but the upside is that his power may be on a higher plane than simply “above-average.”
At one point last year Plouffe was on pace to finish with 40 home runs, and while the late-season swoon that caused him to finish with 24 could be viewed as an inevitable regression to the mean, there was also a debilitating thumb injury in play. It sidelined him for a few weeks and undoubtedly affected him down the stretch.
Why He’ll Be Worse
The big question is to what degree Plouffe’s thumb injury derailed his performance. Quite possibly it was a minor factor, and the larger problem was that pitchers adjusted and started attacking him in ways he couldn’t adapt to.
In both the minors and majors, the infielder has historically had problems controlling the strike zone. In his first MLB stint back in 2010, he struck out 14 times and drew zero walks in 44 plate appearances, batting .146. His K/BB rates have improved in two seasons since, but last year’s 97/35 mark was still ugly and contributed heavily to a .235 batting average.
Plouffe can send the ball a mile when he connects, but his long swing has holes, and no one can exploit those holes like major-league pitchers. If hurlers continue to stay one step ahead of him, as they have been for the majority of his big-league career outside of a few windows, his batting average and OBP will continue to falter and he’ll struggle to coax mistake pitches that end up in the seats.
His defense is obviously another concern. Although he showed some impressive skills at the hot corner last year, you get the sense that the Twins weren’t especially happy with his glovework overall. If he doesn’t make the necessary improvements they might simply give up on the idea of him as a regular infielder.
Moving to the outfield or DH would ding his value, particularly in light of this organization’s drastic need for productive infield bats.
Why He’ll Be Better
Skeptics have suggested that Plouffe’s superhuman stretch last year was a fluke, pointing out that there was no precedent for that type of outburst in his track record.
This may be true to some extent, but it’s worth noting that Plouffe had a similar run at Triple-A in 2011, where he hit went deep 15 times in 51 games with a .635 slugging percentage. In his first six pro seasons Plouffe never topped 13 bombs but in the past three years between Triple-A and the majors he has hit 17, 23 and 24 homers. At the beginnings of those seasons he was 23, 24 and 25 years old.
To me, he profiles very much as a guy coming into his own as he approaches his physical prime and adjusts to the competition at the highest levels. It would be much easier to label last year’s breakout an outlier if it weren't preceded by several seasons of steady improvement. The careers of most ballplayers follow a bell curve and it’s quite possible that Plouffe has not yet reached his precipice.
Over the past two seasons, Plouffe has hit more home runs than any Twin not named Josh Willingham, and he’s accomplished that despite playing only 200 total games and being one of the youngest players on the roster. If he can stay healthy and continue his trend of improvement this year, there’s little reason to believe he won’t top 30 homers and become a tremendous asset in a lineup core that has a chance to be quite potent.