MINNEAPOLIS (AP) Trevor Plouffe is coming off of a season in which he led the Minnesota Twins in RBIs and signed a $4.8 million, one-year contract that made him the highest-paid third baseman in franchise history.
Put those two things together and the 28-year-old Plouffe would appear to be on firm footing heading into his sixth season in the big leagues. But with star prospect Miguel Sano recovered from an elbow injury that cost him most of last season, the future is anything but certain for Plouffe.
''I'm in it to win, man. I want to win the AL Central,'' Plouffe said as the Twins opened their annual fan festival.
''That's our goal every year is to get to the playoffs, so that's all that matters to me. I know if I work hard and help the team that's all that really matters.''
If he isn't answering questions about Sano directly, it's hard to blame him. The power-hitting Dominican was tearing up the minor leagues before needing Tommy John surgery on his right elbow last season, and it is considered only a matter of time before he is swinging for the fences at Target Field.
In the interim, Plouffe is doing all he can to make a name for himself. He was a first-round draft pick in 2004, an athletic shortstop with some pop in his bat who was once viewed as a future star in the organization.
But Plouffe struggled defensively at one of the game's most demanding positions and occasionally frustrated then-manager Ron Gardenhire and the front office with his erratic focus.
Over the past three seasons, he's started to show signs of what the Twins once saw in him. He hit 24 home runs in 2012 and 14 in 2013 before hitting another 14 and driving in 80 runs last season. And after a rough start defensively while he made the transition to third base, Plouffe has impressed those in charge with the work he has put in to improve in that area over the last two seasons.
Hall of Famer Paul Molitor, who served on Gardenhire's staff last season before GM Terry Ryan hired him to take over as manager, was familiar with Plouffe's reputation as a player who was just happy to be in the big leagues and not all that interested in putting the work in to take his game to another level. But he said he saw a change last season, the fourth straight that the Twins have lost at least 90 games.
''I was pleased with how he played last year,'' Molitor said. ''I think through a lot of hard work he developed a lot of confidence.''
Plouffe has fully recovered from a broken right arm late last September. His wife is expecting the couple's first child in July, which Plouffe said has also given him a new perspective on his job.
''I've put the work in, I've had great coaches surrounding me,'' Plouffe said. ''I think I've improved defensively, I think offensively I did as well, but there's always things to work on.''
''I'm not resting on any part of my game, so I've been working a lot this offseason and I'm going down to spring training a couple weeks early and I'm going to get a lot of work in there. So there's just nothing for me to rest on. I'm going to continue to work on all facets of the game,'' he said.
As for Sano, the Twins aren't counting on anything just yet. He still has to show that he is fully recovered from his elbow surgery, and likely will need some time in the minor leagues to get his timing back at the plate before the Twins will bring him up for the first time.
So the job is Plouffe's to lose. For now, at least.
''Trevor Plouffe's the guy that done the job at the major league level,'' Ryan said. ''So Sano's going to have to come in and push him, that's all.''
AP Sports Writer Dave Campbell contributed to this story.