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Trevor Plouffe: Once and Future Third Baseman?

Why was there so much excitement in Minnesota for Trevor Plouffe this year? Here are a few names to keep in mind: Danny Valencia, Joe Crede, Brian Buscher, Nick Punto, Michael Cuddyer, Corey Koskie, the illustrious crew of Twins’ third basemen since 2000. While Plouffe’s 106 wRC+ ranks just about dead average for that group, five of the six years better than his belong to Koskie, who was the Twins’ last offensively acceptable third baseman and who left the team in 2004. Valencia’s half-season of success in 2010 gave fans — and likely the team as well — hope that they had found a long term answer, but by June or July of 2011, it was clear that Valencia was another in the line of replacement level replacements. It looked, for more than a fleeting moment during the summer, that Plouffe would be the answer the Twins have been looking for.

He struggled to get consistent playing time when he first came up from Triple-A and it showed in his line. His first 32 games included 27 starts and produced a .163/.261/.347 line. Nearly a third of his 16 hits were home runs, so he was producing at least some value, but at this point his ownership was so low that they were more or less wasted in the fantasy sense.

Plouffe’s next 27 starts — all of June and his first game in July — are what put him on the fantasy map. He hit .333/.395/.784 with 13 HR, 23 RBI, and 24 R; that is an impressive month and it sent his ownership soaring, though the earlier in that span that owners grabbed him, the more value they got from him. He was hitting home runs on nearly a third of his flyballs, which wasn’t sustainable, but the drop off came faster than anyone was expecting. While he finished July with a workable average, .288/.333/.373, his power was all but gone. He hit just one more home run between July 2 and July 20 when a thumb injury sidelined him for the better part of a month.

It would be easy to blame Plouffe’s injuries for his absolutely abominable return from the disabled list, especially as hand and wrist injuries have a tendency to linger even beyond the player’s activation, but that just doesn’t seem to be the case here. Yes, he went 1-for-24 in his first week off the DL and finished the month of August with a .161/.232/.226 line, but he boasted a 28.6 percent line drive rate during that same time, which makes it hard to suggest that he was swinging tentatively or ineffectively because of his thumb. Even acknowledging that line drives can be miscategorized, not many guys manage a BABIP of .188 when they’re barreling up the ball relatively well.

Plouffe’s September was better, but hardly rises to the level of good. He hit .218/.269/.416 with four home runs — in similar fashion to the way he started the season, when he made contact the ball carried and 11 of his 22 hits went for extra bases — but he finished the season with an overall line of .235/.301/.455, which frankly isn’t that impressive. He was Zach Sanders’ 31st best third baseman this year and it’s hard to argue that he didn’t earn that ranking, but neither so is it difficult to imagine that Plouffe could have finished with a much better average at the very least without much additional effort. This is not to say that Plouffe’s struggles were solely bad luck, but he certainly was on the wrong side of a few bad breaks.

The up-and-down nature of Plouffe’s season makes it difficult to look at it holistically and get a good sense of what he’s going to be going forward. The Twins would love for him to be their answer at third until Miguel Sano is ready — circa 2016 if he can stick at third base at all — but Plouffe’s defense doesn’t make that possible if he’s only going to be six percent above league average offensively. His BABIP by the end of the year was a regrettable .244 and while he doesn’t have enough major league experience to definitively say how low that is, I don’t feel particularly adventurous saying that he’ll have a better time of it next year.

Betting on Plouffe to pull a full season anywhere close to his month of June would be irrational and nothing more than wishcasting, but — assuming he stays healthy next year — a batting average in the .260-.270 range with another 25 home runs hardly seems too good to be true. I can’t see the Twins adding a third baseman this offseason and there’s no obvious replacement in the system, so he should get a fair shake next year. If he hits, he’ll have the chance to stay, but I don’t know that Plouffe will get a chance to play through another extended slump the way he did twice in 2012, but at that point he’d be so far off fantasy radars that it won’t affect too many owners.