Mackey: With Plouffe and Nishioka, Twins face dilemma at shortstop
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With fewer than 30 games remaining in what has turned out to be a lost season, the Minnesota Twins have already begun the process of sorting out what they will have heading into 2012.
Perhaps the most intriguing player to watch over the next four weeks is Trevor Plouffe, who, after going 2-for-4 with a double on Wednesday, is now hitting .239/.305/.402 on the season -- good enough for the fourth-highest OPS on the team.
Even so, those numbers aren't necessarily overwhelming until considering the fact that Plouffe is hitting .308/.341/.449 since Aug. 8 -- this after he posted a .313/.384/.635 batting line with 15 home runs and 29 extra-base hits in 220 Triple-A plate appearances earlier this year.
Not to mention, Plouffe -- who will be out of minor league options heading into next season -- seems to be figuring things out a little bit at shortstop over the last two weeks, minus one throwing error last Saturday at Target Field. Plouffe, 25, has spent a considerable amount of time working on his throwing mechanics from the left side of the infield, even though he has spent the majority of the last two months playing elsewhere in the field.
"I feel like I've gotten to that point where I actually believe (I belong)," Plouffe said Sunday. "There was a couple times where I took a deep breath and said, 'This is where you need to play, this is where you belong.' I think once you hit that mental state, it helps a lot."
Problem is, even if Plouffe does indeed belong in the big leagues, there's an elephant in the room preventing him from playing shortstop exclusively over the next four weeks -- the position he'd be most valuable at if he proves he's able to take the reins.
Nishioka will be paid $6 million over the next two years, and the Twins also paid approximately $5 million for the rights to negotiate with him, which makes benching the shortstop a little more complicated.
Put it this way: Manager Ron Gardenhire and Twins front office members have been extremely diplomatic when talking publicly about Nishioka, who is hitting just .221/.267/.245 in 224 plate appearances with 10 errors and numerous misplays in the field. Nishioka is also one of the least valuable players in the game according to Wins Above Replacement (-1.4).
"The adjustment period should be past," Gardenhire said last weekend. "We all know you need more at-bats, that's a given. We always say it with our kids. You need 1,500 at-bats in this league, maybe 2,000 at-bats to really tell what you are, but Nishi's been hitting over there for a long time, so next year's going to be huge. The last month I think is going to be huge to see how he does."
In theory, the Twins could ride out the experiment with Nishioka at shortstop and use Plouffe at second base, where regular starter Alexi Casilla remains sidelined with a pulled hamstring. But Casilla has been all but guaranteed the starting job next season, deservedly so. Plouffe has also worked some at third base, but Danny Valencia acts a road block there.
It's possible Plouffe could play one of the corner outfield spots next season, but his bat simply wouldn't be as valuable at those positions -- and that's without figuring free agents Michael Cuddyer and/or Jason Kubel back into the mix.
Over the last two weeks, the situation has sorted itself out because of Nishioka's sore oblique. Plouffe has started eight of the last 10 games at shortstop after not playing there at all since being recalled on July 14.
Again, this isn't to say Plouffe is the next Troy Tulowitzki. He isn't. But with more reps, he appears on track to be a solid starter at a position where it's tough to find solid starters, as the Twins are finding out while watching J.J. Hardy tear the cover off the ball in Baltimore.
At some point a decision needs to be made.
The question is, will Nishioka's contract drive the Twins' decision-making process? To which general manager Bill Smith said last homestand, "There was no pressure on Gardy all year with this. ... We provide the players and he uses them as he sees best."
Gardenhire sounds as if he's keeping an open mind.
"Nishi I plan on being my starting shortstop," Gardenhire said. "We signed him to be that. But like I said, we come into spring training, and if people struggle and it doesn't look right, we're not afraid to... We're going to play to win. But I expect Nishi to be better. I think after a year, I'm assuming. We'll see this last month how he does. I expect him to be a better player. This last month is a big month for him to finish off good and then come into spring training and we'll see what happens in spring training."
The Twins are hoping Nishioka will improve after putting 2011 behind him -- with the broken leg, wife having a baby, and dealing with a new country and new opposing pitchers for the first time.
"That's the big story here," Gardenhire said. "Really, that's what it's all about. Once you've played here and you know the league a little bit, you're more familiar with the surroundings. He's been through a an awful lot this year, with his broken leg, he's going to be able to get better from that. I've always said he's still not moving as fast as he did during spring training because of the leg. So he should be able to get past that. That's what we're going to all see. We're going to all see if he's going to be a better player."
Part of the problem with Nishioka defensively is the adjustment from playing in Japan, where cutoffs, relays and even fielding techniques are different.
"He tells me all the time, 'We're used to doing this, this is the way we do it' -- it's different," Gardenhire said. "So we're trying to get him out of the habits he's learned there. And I'm not saying it's wrong, it's just the way it's taught and the way they play, knocking balls down with your chest and stuff like that. They teach that, knock the ball down and get an out. We teach catch the ball. Use your feet and catch the ball."
But even if Nishioka does improve, he'd have to make giant leaps both offensively and defensively to become a viable, every-day starting shortstop.
And even though Plouffe has a long ways to go as well, he appears to have much more upside than Nishioka, who has hit only three balls at or near the warning track all season.
Plus, Plouffe -- who has hit 20 balls at, near or over the warning track in 20 fewer plate appearances -- will make less than $500,000 next season.
"Plouffe has definitely, in my opinion, has put himself in a position (to play)," Gardenhire said. "The way he's swinging the bat, and he's handling himself a lot better now -- trying to find a way to put him in the mix somewhere. If it's outfield it's outfield, if it's infield it's infield. We're trying to keep his bat in there. The way he's swinging right now looks pretty important."
Lately, it's been shortstop, where throwing errors earned Plouffe a demotion in June. A throwing error on Saturday actually earned him a little extra encouragement.
"When he threw the ball away (Saturday), I went, 'Hey, you're playing good baseball. Just go back out there, finish your throws,'" Gardenhire said. "He calmed down right away and went back out there. He carries it with him a little bit. You see him yelling at himself and getting mad. In this game, you've got to forget. You make a mistake, you've got to move on. And that's a learning process for him at this level. I think he's starting to understand that you're up here -- I know he believes he belongs. But it's about getting confidence and getting it done on the field, and still believing in yourself, not getting too high or too low. Those are hard things for young kids."
The only way to find out for sure is to let Plouffe play. Even if it means having a more expensive bench.
"It hasn't been just flip a switch," Plouffe said. "I wanted it to be that at first, and I thought I could do it, but it's not. You've just got to have some experience, you've got to have a little time up here, and that's what it takes. Just coming out day-to-day and realizing, 'OK, I learned something new today.'"