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Trevor Plouffe cracked a three-run home run for the Twins on Thursday afternoon, and those three runs proved to be the only ones that crossed the plate all day. A strong outing from Ervin Santana (eight innings, four hits, no runs or walks, seven strikeouts) carried Minnesota from there, snapping as bad a four-game losing streak (one wasted comeback, then three straight blowouts) as a team can have. The Twins now stand at 51-44, three games ahead of the Blue Jays for the second wild card berth in the American League. They’re clear deadline buyers, and more than that, they’re solidifying a status that was unthinkable before the season began: favorites to reach the playoffs.

At the same time, there’s plenty of room for doubt about this team. The offense has scored enough runs to win very often this season, but that’s happened partially on the strength of good sequencing luck, and partially on the strength of unsustainable overachievement. They’re a better offense than many people realized, and they’ve made a commendable adjustment to the new way of the world: They no longer take the first pitch of plate appearances at an unusual rate, let alone the extreme rate at which they took them last season.

Minnesota Twins, First-Pitch Swing Rate, 2013-15

Season

First-Pitch Swing %

MLB Rank

2013

20.9

29th

2014

22.6

29th

2015

28.1

18th

Still, they rank 10th in the AL in runs per game, and 14th in team True Average. On the pitching side, they’re better—they are the median in the AL in runs per game, and they rank 10th in MLB in DRA. Still, the composite sketch of this team doesn’t scream true contender. They’re still riding the 30-19 stretch to which they ran out in April and May, though they’ve survived two vacillations that looked like collapses in the making isnce.

Thus, Terry Ryan is in a tricky spot. He can’t sell off any of the overachieving veterans he has on hand, and he can’t even stand pat, really. That might be acceptable if the team were three games removed from a playoff spot, but with a three-game cushion, they have to at least gesture toward securing that status. Which brings me, as it has before, to Plouffe.

It’s very hard to identify underrated players in sports anymore, because applying that tag to anyone is almost enough to disqualify the player in itself. To prove someone is underrated, one must be able to answer the question, “Underrated by whom?” Hardly anyone is universally underrated, or anything close to it, in this new age of so many available viewpoints and information sources. Statheads can call a player underrated as a vague reference to the player’s standing with casual fans, but it doesn’t have much meaning.

Trevor Plouffe, however, might genuinely be the guy. He might be the last underrated baseball player in MLB. Once a brutal defensive shortstop with a bat just good enough to get him a second look, Plouffe is growing into something just short of a star, and hardly anyone has noticed.

In limited action during 2010 and 2011, Plouffe played the middle infield and the corner outfield. He didn’t hit enough to provide value in the latter role, though, and he quickly proved utterly incapable of playing either shortstop or second base in the Majors. Thus, from 2012 onward, he was primarily a third baseman. At first, though, he was equally bad there. I went to a game early in 2013 and saw a player who didn’t appear even to have the basics of the hot corner down. He would set up wrong prior to pitches, limiting his lateral range by setting his feet incorrectly, bending at the waist before he even began to charge slow bouncers. As converted shortstops sometimes do, he tried to compensate for the closer proximity to the plate and the ball coming at him faster by speeding up his own actions, instead of using the natural athleticism that once made him a shortstop to make the play smoothly, knowing he would have more time to get the ball to first because it had reached him sooner.

He improved throughout 2013, though, and was above-average by the end of the year. He’s not on the level of Manny Machado or Nolan Arenado, but there aren’t 10 better defensive third basemen in baseball right now than the one Plouffe has become. He rarely makes acrobatic plays, but his range and arm are both terrific.

At the plate, Plouffe was similarly limited as a younger player. Through 2013, he remained a lefty masher who scuffled badly against same-handed pitching.

Trevor Plouffe, Platoon Splits, 2010-13

Split

PA

AVG

OBP

SLG

V RHP

996

.227

.284

.382

V LHP

355

.278

.346

.495

It’s always nice to have a guy who can hit even tough southpaws, but for the first four seasons of his career, Plouffe was rather helpless in 70 percent of his plate appearances. Right-handed hitters who want to stick as regulars eventually must learn to hit right-handed pitchers. So Plouffe did. Here are his splits since the start of 2014.

Trevor Plouffe, Platoon Splits, 2014-15

Split

PA

AVG

OBP

SLG

V RHP

669

.254

.316

.439

V LHP

288

.260

.340

.416

There’s no magical change here. Plouffe has simply gotten better. He hasn’t gotten drastic in his hit trajectories or directions, and he hasn’t notably traded power for contact. He just hits the ball hard more often, largely by being more aggressive than he used to be, especially early in the count. He’s found a comfort zone that allows him to attack right-handed pitchers with a degree of confidence he didn’t have before. Overall, he’s gone from a one-dimensional hacker with a modicum of power, to a well-balanced doubles hitter with both control of the strike zone, and the ability to poke the ball out of the park now and then.

One last thing on Plouffe, before we widen the lens again:

Trevor Plouffe, Splits by Times Facing Opponent Within Game, 2015

Split

PA

AVG

OBP

SLG

v SP, 1st

89

.321

.382

.474

v SP, 2nd

90

.289

.344

.482

v SP, 3rd

79

.329

.397

.700

v RP

111

.135

.189

.240

I can’t explain this, nor is it part of the narrative about Plouffe’s impressive improvement. He’s made himself a good hitter and a good fielder, apparently through a lot of hard work and improved preparation. When he faces the superior raw stuff of relievers, though, he seems to be helpless. For now, anyway. It’s worth mentioning.

***

Yes, Plouffe has been a magnificent story for the Twins, even if Brian Dozier’s exaggerated version of the same career arc has gobbled up the headlines and the national notice. That said, I laid out the case for him mostly because he’s the best trade chip the Twins have right now.

Maybe Miguel Sano never will be a decent third baseman, or maybe he only would be one for a year or two, before having to move to a less-valuable defensive position. Right now, though, the slugging 22-year-old is likely up to the task, and he’s a better hitter even than the evolved version of Plouffe. Moreover, Plouffe was a Super Two guy after 2013, so he’s making $4.8 million this season as a second-year arbitration-eligible player. He’s under team control through 2017, but it won’t come cheaply, especially given his continued improvement. The Twins are better off with Sano at third base, so they should use Plouffe to upgrade at a position where they don’t have as good an option on hand, or even waiting in the wings.

What does that look like? It’s a little tricky. The Indians and White Sox both badly need a player like Plouffe to fill third base, but that’s the kind of intra-division trade that truly doesn’t make sense: The Twins would be making a rival better for the next two years by making such a deal. The Mets could really use Plouffe, but probably (hilariously) can’t afford him. The Braves have two bad third-base options, in Chris Johnson and Juan Uribe, who probably stand in the way of them acquiring a good one right now. The Marlins might trade Martin Prado, but like the Mets, they probably look at Plouffe’s prospective price tag for the next two years and pass on him, at least at any price level that would make a deal worth Minnesota’s while.

There are two decent landing spots for Plouffe, though, places where the Twins might find the short-term help they need elsewhere on the roster while filling an important need for the acquiring team. One (the more difficult one) is the Angels, who lost David Freese to a fractured finger after he was hit by a pitch during the two teams’ series this week. That would probably have to be a three-way deal, because the contending Angels don’t have an overabundant strength from which to trade in order to help fix the Twins’ holes at shortstop, catcher, and in the bullpen. It’s a fit, though.

The other, better option is to offer to help fix A.J. Preller’s mess of an infield. Preller tried to rebuild the Padres without addressing the team’s lack of even an average infielder this winter, and is paying the heavy price of that hubris now. There would be real value for Minnesota in shoring up left field (a position from which they have gotten a .683 aggregate OPS, largely from Eduardo Escobar and Eddie Rosario) by dealing for Justin Upton and one of San Diego’s solid spare relief arms. Would Preller settle for two and a half years of the low-ceiling Plouffe as the return for two months of Upton? It’s hard to say, but it’s worth asking. Once barely replacement-level, Plouffe is now an average or better regular at a position where many teams don’t have that. There’s no question he’s worth Upton. The only uncertainty lies in whether Preller appreciates him at that level, and whether Ryan is aggressive enough to try something this creative with a playoff berth on the line.

Thank you for reading

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danrnelson
7/24
I would LOVE to see a package centering on Plouffe and a decent, but not great prospect or two for Upton. Definitely smarter than selling the farm for a #1 starter like the A's tried to do last year.
AaronSF
7/25
I think the Twins are going to roll with Rosario in left, though, for better or worse. What they really need is a catcher. Plouffe + what = Norris?
vansloot
7/25
The Twins are way too committed to being a "nice team to play for" among the players. I don't see them trading a "fan favorite" (for certain definitions of "favorite"). If anything, I would say the local Twins fans have been more into Plouffe for longer than the statheads have, if only because he hit 24 HRs in a season (2012) when the rest of the team was just awful.
Nacho999
7/27
Man, good fielding 3B that can hit some don't grow on trees...On maybe they do...Temporarily I find myself in possession of Trevor Plouffe, Bret Lawrie (mostly because of his 2B eligibility), Chase Headley and Nick Castellanos...Headley has struggled with the leather (errors count in my league so I have to DH him), but I just acquired David Ortiz for the last eight weeks. Someone has to go. I like Plouffe. I hope the Twins hang onto him. He got robbed of a double today by Jacoby Ellsbury, but he's been swinging the bat pretty well. Castellanos is a good defensive 3B too and he's only 23. Lawrie I have always liked despite his brittleness, but he's been horrid at 3B this year. I had Marcus Semien for 25 of his errors so I'm happy to have Lawrie in his stead for the balance of this year...I'd never trade Plouffe for Bud Norris, Daniel Norris maybe, but still probably not...Anyway, found the notion that the Twins might move Plouffe to play Sano at 3B interesting. Hopefully it won't come to that.