Pressure is on Plouffe to produce

The oft-injured third baseman needs to be consistent with prospects waiting.

 

Twins third baseman Trevor Plouffe, eager to end his rehabilitation stint at Class AAA Rochester last week, contacted General Manager Terry Ryan.

“I was pushing for Terry to bring me up for [Tigers] series,” Plouffe said. “I gave him a call and he said, ‘Listen, you are going to get your bat right before you come up here. I want you to come up here and produce.’ ”

Plouffe homered and played strong defense against Detroit on Saturday in his first game back following a strained left calf muscle. On Sunday, he hit a couple balls hard that were right at fielders.

Not a bad return — but he needs to keep it up.

Plouffe, 27, has played in 261 major league games, getting 990 plate appearances. Yet the Twins still aren’t sure what they have in their first-round pick from 2004. They think he can hit for power. They think he can play solid defense. He has shown flashes of doing both.

The Twins have tried him at shortstop, second, third and even the outfield, “because of the bat,” manager Ron Gardenhire said.

But the club is past the point of being impressed with flashes. Twins officials want to see consistent, daily production. With mega-prospect Miguel Sano now at Class AA New Britain, Plouffe’s window to take hold of third base might not be as open as it once was.

“There’s a lot of things that need to be answered with his game,” Ryan said of Plouffe. “He is in the prime of his career. There’s still things that have to be determined on what we have got in Trevor Plouffe. He’s strong enough, he’s got some length in his bat. He’s got plenty arm, he runs well enough. He was an ex-shortstop, so he ought to be able to go over there and play third.”

Ryan acknowledged that Plouffe did suffer a concussion last month, which wasn’t his fault, and called his recent calf muscle strain “a mishap.”

“It sure would be nice to get him out there for a couple straight months so we know what we are dealing with,” Ryan said.

• • •

Plouffe seemed to turn a corner last summer when he hit 18 homers during a 39-game stretch. It was about two weeks after that run when he landed on the disabled list because of a bruised right thumb. When he returned, he batted .196 with five home runs and 17 RBI.

Through 39 games this season, Plouffe is batting .264 with five homers and 20 RBI, so he hasn’t found that same power stroke yet. And a Twins team begging for offense sure could use it.

When Plouffe puts his best swing on a ball — and gets the backspin every power hitter craves — it travels a long way. Josh Willingham has helped Plouffe be more patient and selective at the plate to get the right pitch to drive.

And on defense, Plouffe has tried to work on his range at third. According to fangraphs.com, Plouffe’s Ultimate Zone Rating (the measure of a fielder’s worth compared with an average defensive player at his position) of minus-6.4 is well off the leader board. Baltimore’s Manny Machado leads the majors at 11.6, with the Rockies’ Nolan Arenado next at 7.8.

“I know I have a lot to do on both sides of the ball,” Plouffe said. “That’s something I’ll have to continue to work on throughout my career. I think right now my offensive game is a little bit ahead of my defensive game. It’s a matter of putting the time in and working, You can change yourself into a good defender, just put the work in.”

Gardenhire said Plouffe is near the point in his career where he should be more reliable.

“What we have seen are the ups and downs,” Gardenhire said. “Now we’ve got to get consistent. Hopefully you get to that 1,000-to-1,500 at-bat range you start to see that consistency. He’s got the talent. He’s got the tools. We know he can hit a baseball. Now can he do it on an everyday basis in the big leagues and play defensively enough to warrant that.”

If Plouffe can’t, the Twins could look at other options, starting in 2014.

• • •

Sano is considered one of the top prospects in all of baseball. He tore up the Florida State League this season, batting .330 with 16 homers and 48 RBI in 56 games before being promoted to Class AA New Britain last week. His defense at third has been scrutinized, but the Twins believe the 6-foot-3, 236-pound Sano can handle the position.

Some members of the organization believe Sano’s bat is about ready for the majors, and there have been indications that the club isn’t afraid to give him a shot next season.

That would give Plouffe just over a half-season to prove he is the long-term answer at third base.

“I know he’s a great player and we welcome all great players,” Plouffe said of Sano. “We want to be a better team. If he’s the guy who is going to come up and help us, so be it. We want to win.

“I’m at third base right now and feel comfortable there as long as I continue to improve. I’ve switched positions before. If I have to switch positions again, it’s no big deal to me. My job is not to worry about that.”

Another third baseman, Deibinson Romero, is batting .296 with four homers and 13 RBI in 22 games at Class AAA Rochester. Romero’s season is just getting started because of a visa-related delays in leaving his home in the Dominican Republic.

There are other third-base options not far away, suggesting that Plouffe needs to turn it on before the future becomes the present. Like Ryan told him over the phone, he wants to see Plouffe produce.

“I just show up and work as hard and I can and play the game,” Plouffe said. “If I continue to improve, I’ll be playing somewhere. I want to be playing here. I love the organization and I think we have a pretty good relationship.”

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