Yesterday during a stop in Mason City, Iowa, Ron Gardenhire was asked about his potential starting line-up for Opening Day of 2012. He provided his 1-9 hitters and for the most part there were very few surprises. The use of Justin Morneau in the number four spot could be changeable once the team sees what he is able to do in spring training.
The announcement of the Twins starting line-up brings some of the other parts of the roster into focus for next season. Over the next few days I will be profiling some of the players who could be making up the bench of the 2012 Twins. The "Bench Buddies Series" will examine some of the players who could play a big role on bringing the Twins back from a 99-loss season.
Today's first profile looks at a former first round pick who could be the most powerful option off of the bench for the Twins next season.
2011 stat summary: .238/.305/.392, 8 HR, 18 DBL, 31 RBI, 47 R, 81 G
2011 season story-line: After 388 career games at the Triple-A level, Plouffe was given ample opportunities to show he belonged at the major league level last season. Between the Triple-A level and MLB level, Plouffe combined to hit 23 home runs with 29 doubles. For the first time in his minor league career, he posted a batting average of over .300 but that number failed to follow him to the majors. The opportunity was there for Plouffe to win the starting shortstop role when he was called up at the beginning of May. His defense at shortstop became a major issue with the big league squad and he was sent back to the minors to become a versatile defense player.
A month and a half later the Twins brought Plouffe back and he would stay with the team for the rest of the campaign. There were some bumps along the way but he began to see time in the outfield and at second base. The month of August showed Plouffe make some strides at the plate as he raised his batting line to .282/.322/412 with eight extra-base hits in 23 games. Expectations have always been high for this former first round pick but the Twins were hoping to see more from Plouffe during last season.
2012 role and expectations: Plouffe is running out of time to show he belongs at the big league level with the Twins. The team has committed to moving him to the outfield for the coming season. This means he will be fighting for playing time with fellow first round pick Ben Revere. These two players would form a nice platoon for the Twins in left field but Gardenhire has not been willing to use this strategy in the past. Depending on how Denard Span comes back from concussion related issues, the Twins could use Plouffe in left field with Revere shifting over to center field.
Another role for Plouffe to familiarize himself with for the coming season is the possibility that he could be used more as a pinch-hitter off of the bench. In his MLB career, he has been asked to pinch-hit on nine occasions and he has yet to record a hit in those plate appearances. In fact he has struck out in five of those at-bats and has never reached base. If the Twins get into a routine of having an outfield composed of Josh Willingham, Span, and Revere, then Plouffe could see time late in games as a replacement for some of the lighter hitting players in the line-up.
There are multiple areas of improvement for Plouffe but one area for a power hitter to succeed in is when there are runners in scoring position. In 2011 Plouffe made 78 plate appearances with RISP and he batted .215/.289/.354 with 14 hits. As a team the Twins need to improve their ability to score runs and Plouffe can play a small part in helping the Twins to turn around this statistical area.
In a recent interview Terry Ryan seemed to still be very high on the bat of Plouffe. The Twins are going to be willing to move him around the corner outfield positions to find a spot that will work for him. During the last decade, the Twins saw another infielder move to the outfield and find success. "It's not too different then what Michael Cuddyer did 10 years ago," Ryan said, "when we put him in the outfield and his bat started to play there."