KANSAS CITY, MO. - Twins manager Ron Gardenhire is determined to improve his team's infield defense by next season's opener, even if that requires drastic changes.
He said this even before the Twins committed three errors, including two by shortstop Trevor Plouffe, in Wednesday's 7-3 loss to the Royals at Kauffman Stadium.
"We're going to definitely do a lot of research and a lot of digging on what's going to make us better in the infield," Gardenhire said. "There's going to be a lot of people in [spring training] camp, we hope, that are going to all push each other, and we're going to come out with a good defense."
The Twins still hope Justin Morneau returns from his latest concussion to play first base, and Gardenhire said he's counting on Alexi Casilla to be the second baseman. When healthy, both are above-average defensive players.
So Gardenhire seems to be putting third baseman Danny Valencia on notice, along with the team's two shortstops, Plouffe and Tsuyoshi Nishioka.
Valencia is batting .250 with 15 homers and a team-high 69 RBI, but he has 18 errors and has shown less range than he did last year. Plouffe is batting .227 with seven homers and 23 RBI, but he has nine errors in 31 games at shortstop. Nishioka is batting .226 with no homers and 19 RBI and has 10 errors in 60 games at shortstop.
"If you've got guys that pitch to contact, and you don't catch the ball, you're in trouble," Gardenhire said.
Twins pitchers certainly pitch to contact. They've recorded a major league-low 853 strikeouts this year. The next closest team, entering Wednesday, was Cleveland with 919.
With 110 errors the Twins are on pace to finish with 120, their highest total since 1985. But those numbers don't reflect the team's poor range. The Twins entered Wednesday ranked last in the American League in defensive efficiency -- percentage of balls in play converted into outs -- at .682.
"We've seen it not work this year through all kinds of injuries and trying different people everywhere," Gardenhire said. "We have to catch the ball. We have to cover more ground, the whole package. That's going to be huge."
Valencia has pledged to be better defensively next year. He and Plouffe can be found doing extra fielding practice before almost every game.
"You have to put a lot of effort into it," Gardenhire said. "It's just like hitting. You have to work to become a good hitter. You have to work to become a good fielder. But you have to have your whole heart into it."
Gardenhire said some players think, "I know if I hit and get my numbers, I'll be fine."
"That doesn't work," he said. "Not around here."
Plouffe had three errors in two games, as the Twins got swept by the Royals, finishing an 0-5 road trip. They are 9-33 in their past 42 games and need to finish 4-10 in their final 14 games to avoid 100 losses.
"I work hard at [defense], and some days, games like this happen," Plouffe said. "In a season like we have right now, everything's magnified. We're losing a lot of games. It's not a good feeling. I feel terrible about it, obviously."
Told about Gardenhire's edict for next year, Plouffe said, "I could care less about next year. I'm not even thinking about that. Right now, I want to go out this season and win some games. That's my No. 1 goal."