After the 2011 season, Trevor Plouffe appeared to be a busted prospect. He didn't show much in the minor leagues and there had to be some concern when he started three consecutive years at Triple-A, but in 2010 he did start showing some signs of hitting for power. The extra-base hits didn't carry over to the majors, and then a new issue developed: It was clear Plouffe could not play shortstop.
In 2012, the power did show up, mainly in a one week outburst midseason. Plouffe also was shifted over to third base, but he showed that he couldn't really handle that position, either. He also was given some starts in the corner outfield positions, but third was the position of biggest need even though Plouffe was still a shaky defender.
Last season, Plouffe managed to take both a step forward and a step back. His power regressed as he hit only 14 home runs and had an isolated power of .138 (league average was .143 in 2013), but he did show some improvement in his defense. Well, it was still bad, but at least he no longer was one of the worst at the hot corner.
This brings us to this season. It sure seemed like Plouffe was going to be keeping 3rd warm for Miguel Sano, but then it was announced that Sano needed Tommy John surgery. With no threat behind him anymore, Plouffe has taken his biggest step foward since becoming a major league regular. With an increased focus on hitting the ball to the opposite field, Plouffe has hit only 14 homers this year yet has been among the league leaders in doubles. His batting average is right around .250, matching last year and being a slight improvement over the .230 averages he had in 2011 and 2012.
While watching Plouffe become a more complete hitter was a nice treat, the biggest improvement he has made has again been with his glove. Somehow, someway, Plouffe has rated as an above-average defensive third baseman this season. You may doubt the credibility of UZR (it's at 8.4 per 150 games this season, he was at -8.5 and -15 the last two seasons) but the Twins have noted that Plouffe received plenty of help from Paul Molitor during the offseason. All together, Plouffe has been worth 3.3 WAR this season, good for third-best on the team.
It's arguable whether Plouffe has truly turned a corner or has been the beneficiary of some luck this year, but regardless he has easily earned a spot on the 2015 roster. That is, until Miguel Sano arrives. His primary position currently is third base, but there's a high likelihood that he will become a first baseman. Of course, Joe Mauer is preventing that from happening. There's the possibility of making Sano a DH, but then Kennys Vargas gets pushed aside.
Sano will most likely be given every chance to show that he can indeed field at third base, which makes Plouffe a man without a position. I keep seeing suggestions that Plouffe become a super-utility player, sort of like a Ben Zobrist Lite. However, there's an issue with this comparison. Zobrist has shown the ability to be an above-average fielder at virtually every position he's played. Plouffe has had only one season of above-average defense in his career. Second, Zobrist is easily a superior hitter. No one knows if the constant uncertainty and being in flux with his position will not be a deterrent to Plouffe's bat in the future.
Going into this offseason, left field is a hole that will need to be filled. Depending on what the Twins do, that may end up being Plouffe's future home. If the Twins are satisfied with Jordan Schafer, he may be the starter until Sano's call-up, in which Schafer goes to the bench so Plouffe can slide over to accommodate Sano. I don't see Plouffe as having as much versatility as Zobrist, but I think it's entirely reasonable to believe he could play left, back up Oswaldo Arcia in right field, back up Sano at third and perhaps even make some starts at first base for Mauer.
Granted, Plouffe could also regress and become an afterthought, but we've suffered through enough heartbreak these last four years. Let's hope that he can perform at a level that gives the Twins the good problem of having too many players with not enough positions on the field.