FORT MYERS, FLA. – Trevor Plouffe flew from California to Florida on Feb. 9. Not long after he landed he sent teammate Jason Bartlett a text message.
“What time you goin’ tomorrow?” it read.
Plouffe didn’t need to get settled in, he needed to get to work. So Plouffe was on the field at the Lee County Sports Complex the next morning — nearly a week before pitchers and catchers reported — to work on his craft as a critical year approaches, one that began Friday with an 8-2 victory over Boston in the season’s first exhibition game.
After an encouraging 2012 season, during which Plouffe hit 24 home runs and knocked in 55 runs, he took a step back in 2013. He batted .254, which actually was better than the .235 he hit in 2012. But his 14 home runs and 52 RBI are not what the Twins want from their third baseman.
Plouffe's status became that much more vital to the Twins on Saturday when the news broke that Miguel Sano, who has been widely viewed as the team's future third baseman, will miss the 2014 season with an elbow injury that will cause him to have Tommy John surgery.
Plouffe, 27, went 1-for-2 with an RBI and two runs in the Twins’ victory over Boston. As the countdown to Opening Day begins, one of the talking points of camp will be if Plouffe can finally put it all together.
Plouffe has referred to Sano as a “great player” even before the slugging prospect has reached the majors and is all for welcoming a player who can help the team. Plouffe, however, has challenged himself to be all he can be, working on his defense throughout offseason workouts at Pepperdine University, and adjusting his approach at the plate to use the whole field more.
Plouffe has added 10 pounds of muscle this season, and if he becomes the player he wants to be, then he can hold off the Sano express — or at least make the decision a tougher one on the Twins as the future unfolds.
“I think this is a big year for [Plouffe],” Twins assistant general manager Rob Antony said before the extent of Sano's injury was known. “Defensively, he has shown flashes. Defensively, he’s improved some. I think he still has room to improve. He works at it every day. I think he wants it, and I think he’s starting to learn how to become a good major league player.
“He knows Sano is behind him. That’s fine, because Miguel has some things he needs to work on, and this is an opportunity for Trevor to establish himself. If he proves he’s a good major league player we will find a spot for him. If Sano is ready to come, that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for Trevor and Sano. This is a big year for Trevor, and he’s an important part of this lineup because he has the ability to drive in runs and keep the chains moving. We need that.”
Plouffe was set back by a strained calf and a concussion during the Twins’ 96-loss season in 2013. But he did get something out of it. He tried to put an end to his pull-happy ways late in the season and watched it pay off, batting .328 over the final 32 games. He only hit two home runs during that time, but he still heads into this season believing that he can drive in more runs if he hits the ball where it’s pitched more.
“You are going to get the guys’ best stuff, and most of the time they don’t want to get beat [inside], they want you to beat them away,” Plouffe said. “You watch all the good RBI guys. You watch Miguel Cabrera, you watch Joe Mauer. They always take what the pitcher gives them, and that’s kind of been my mind-set.”
Plouffe has been known to miss the routine play at third and fail to get to balls he should get to. He’s worked on his positioning and his footwork, with help from Bartlett and coach Paul Molitor.
“He wants to get better, which is a good thing,” Bartlett said. “He knows what he needs to do. There are some things that I have seen and some things that people have told me about and he’s out there working on it.”
Plouffe is trying to take care of the present while ignoring what the future might bring — especially if it’s the 6-3, 260-pound Sano. And that’s by becoming the well-rounded player he’s always wanted to be.
“I’d lying if I told you I didn’t think I was really close,” Plouffe said. “I feel really confident coming into this year. I’m working my tail off out there defensively. I don’t just want to be adequate out there, I want to be better than that. That’s something I really, really have been focusing on out there lately. The hitting is going to be there. My at-bats have become more professional from the years I have under my belt and just being able to learn from the guys in here.”