Trevor Plouffe got his first start of the season yesterday. He went 0-3 at the plate, but it was his fielding position – right field – that was perhaps more significant. Plouffe, who took over in the late innings at second base in one game during the Baltimore series, has also spent time at shortstop, first base, and left field in his young MLB career. Plouffe is on his way to becoming the Twins’ next super utility player: a player who makes it into the lineup on a regular basis, but rarely at the same position twice in a row.
That role makes a lot of sense for Plouffe, who has struggled to find his niche at any one position on the diamond. He was drafted in the first round in 2004 as a shortstop, but he never surged through the Twins system in part because of defensive shortcomings. Once he finally reached the Majors, Plouffe struggled mightily at short in his rookie season, committing 11 errors in 45 games. When the Twins added Jamey Carroll, the team announced that they would move Plouffe to the outfield. But his ability to play infield positions (albeit badly at times) gives the team a lot of flexibility on the bench.
If Plouffe is looking for a player to emulate, he could do worse than Tampa’s Ben Zobrist. Zobrist is the game’s preeminent super-utility player, and in fact he has made an All Star team and received MVP votes despite not having a single spot on the diamond to call his own. In his Rays career, Zobrist has played 286 games at second base, 205 games in right field, 130 games at shortstop, 26 in center field, 24 in left, 17 at first base, and four at third base. And he is as versatile at the plate as he is on the diamond. Zobrist has socked 20 or more homers twice in the past three years, and he has stolen 17 or more bases all three of those seasons.
Plouffe may never steal 17 bases, but he has the potential to rival Zobrist in the power department. Between AAA and the Twins, he hit 23 homers last season. If he could improve his plate discipline and raise his on-base percentage somewhere near Zobrist’s .348 career mark, Plouffe would be a significant asset to the Twins. So far, Plouffe’s OBP has hovered around the .300 mark, and even in the minors he rarely exceeded .320. But Zobrist’s case offers some reason for hope. Zobrist did not break into the everyday lineup until he was 28 years old. Plouffe is still just 26, so he has some time to improve his hitting and fielding.
Within the Twins organization, the gold standard for super utility play is Cesar Tovar. Tovar played 134 or more games for Minnesota every year from 1964 through 1971, and he played at least five different positions each year. He famously played every position on the diamond on September 22, 1968, making him only the second Major Leaguer to accomplish that feat (Bert Campaneris was the first). He was not just a gimmicky player, though; Tovar could hit. He led the league in both doubles and triples in 1970, and he led in hits in 1971. Like Zobrist, Tovar received MVP votes in multiple seasons (every year from 1967 through 1971 in fact), but he never made it to the All Star game, perhaps because he did not have a position at which people could vote for him.
Denny Hocking is the most recent Twin who could be called a super utility player. Hocking was not quite the everyday presence in the lineup that Tovar was, but he did manage to make over 400 plate appearances per year in 1999 and in 2000. Though his .298/.371/.416 line in 2000 was quite respectable, Hocking was not known as a hitter. He was a versatile fielder first and foremost.
The early indications are that the Twins might not be incredibly competitive this season. If that turns out to be the case, the team should make Plouffe’s development a primary goal for 2012. Minnesota needs to get Plouffe into the lineup as often as possible, at as many positions as possible. That way he’ll have a chance to prove to the Twins that they did not waste their first pick in the ’04 draft. It’s hard to say where he could end up on the spectrum from Hocking to Tovar to Zobrist, but if he turns out like any of those players, he’ll be an asset to the Twins.