Settled at one position, Twins' Plouffe hopes he sticks

The Twins want him to be the long-term solution at third base.

FORT MYERS, FLA. - Glove representatives will be disappointed to learn that Trevor Plouffe doesn't need your business the way he used to. He will sign up for that third baseman's glove, but he will no longer need to keep a glove for nearly every position.

Drafted as a shortstop, tried in the outfield, looked at as a second baseman and now playing third, Plouffe played at least one inning at six positions last season. Now the Twins appear willing to at least enter the season with Plouffe at third base, hoping for more homers and fewer errors.

The Twins indicated during the offseason that they would look for competition for Plouffe at third base. It made sense, given that Plouffe batted .235 last season with 24 home runs and 55 RBI and led all American League third basemen with 17 errors.

Then again, Plouffe showed more promise at that position than any Twins third baseman in years. While playing third base, Plouffe hit 20 homers and drove in 49 runs. No Twins third baseman has hit that many homers since Corey Koskie hit 25 in 2004.

The Twins declined to bring in another third baseman. Mark Sobolewski, a minor league Rule 5 pickup, is the only other prototypical third baseman in camp. Deibinson Romero, a midlevel prospect coming off of a solid season at Class AA New Britain, remains in the Dominican Republic waiting for a visa. So the position is Plouffe's to run with.

Manager Ron Gardenhire, who didn't hold back his criticism of Plouffe last year, verbally hugged the 26-year-old last week when asked about him.

"He'll be fine," Gardenhire said. "We all know about the throwing part and all those things. I know Plouffie worked his butt off out there trying to get better. That's half the battle. You've got a guy willing to go out and do extra work, tried a lot of different things.

"The advantage he has now is he's the third baseman. It's not like he's got to take ground balls in left field. He's got one focus, and that's playing third and getting his hits. Two focuses but one ideal -- third base, hits."

It's a long list of players that the Twins have tried at third base since 2004, one that includes players such as Tony Batista, Mike Lamb and Brian Buscher. Danny Valencia appeared to win the job in half a season with the Twins in 2010, but he sagged in his second season and plummeted in his third, getting demoted and eventually traded last summer.

When Valencia was demoted May 10, Plouffe took over at third. At 6-2 and around 200 pounds, the 2004 first-round draft pick looks the part, and over a torrid stretch in June he played it, too.

Now he has to take another step and become a six-month threat there instead of a one-month wonder.

"I'm looking forward to this year," said Plouffe, who didn't participate in drills Sunday because of a slightly sore right calf. "It's going, for me, to be a little easier to be consistent, to establish that routine and just stick with it the whole year."

During a 31-game stretch from May 28 to July 3, Plouffe hit .319 with 15 home runs, 28 RBI and a .756 slugging percentage. He hit seven home runs during a seven-game span in June. He hit eight home runs in interleague play, setting a single-season club record.

Things were going well until July 20, when Plouffe suffered a bruised right thumb while batting at Kansas City. When it didn't respond well to a week of treatment, he landed on the disabled list.

He returned Aug. 13 and wasn't the same, batting .196 with five home runs. Trying to produce with a hand injury is tough for most hitters. In his first 15 games back, he batted .125 with no extra-base hits.

"I was ready to play at that time," Plouffe said. "But it was just the fact that I didn't want to get jammed again."

He went home to California for the offseason and worked out at Pepperdine University, something he has done for the past several offseasons. He focused on third base work and didn't worry about other positions. And he lost a few pounds, gaining a little more agility he hopes will help his defense.

"I got sent away last year and I knew what I needed to work on," Plouffe said. "I got to be able to work on that, knowing that was it. Just from focusing more on that, that's how I was able to lose some weight."

And let's face it. It's easier to ignore errors if the ball is going over the fence 30 times. And Plouffe isn't that far off that, having accumulated his stats in only 119 games last year.

"He hit [24], I think that earns him the right to get a chance," Gardenhire said. "I know he got beat up with his hands hurting. He's earned an opportunity to go out there and play. That's what we say here. You have to earn it. But putting the ball in the seats as many times as he did, no matter how many games he played in, that's pretty good. It's up to him how he plays and how long he plays."

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