One major lesson I have learned in the past several years is the value of waiting out the early stages of the Hot Stove season and seeking bargains after New Year’s Day. Just last offseason, Washington signed free agents Matt Belisle, Stephen Drew and Daniel Murphy after January 1st, three major contributors to last season’s team.
Rumors have tied Washington recently with bigger-name free agents Greg Holland, Brandon Moss and Matt Wieters in recent weeks. And without dismissing those individuals, I want to spotlight one free agent Washington should specifically target, Trevor Plouffe.
After four consecutive quality seasons from 2012-2015, Plouffe struggled through an injury-riddled season in 2016, limiting him to only 84 games played. Plouffe hit .260/.303/.420 with 12 home runs and 26 extra base hits in his 319 at-bats last season. During his 7-year major league career, Plouffe has hit .247/.308/.420 with 96 home runs and 254 extra base hits in 723 games played. In particular he has shown an aptitude against left-handed pitching with a career .809 OPS. He does not draw many walks (only 7.5% walk rate career) and strikes out at a 20% career rate, but his impressive right-handed power makes him an asset offensively.
Defensively the 30-year-old has experience at each position besides catcher and center field, although he has been limited to the infield corners in recent seasons. Plouffe is not a base stealer but has reasonable foot speed and decent athleticism, along with a strong throwing arm. Defensive metrics traditionally rate him as below-average to fringe-average at both first and third base; in addition, his arm and athleticism should allow him to be passable as a corner outfielder in an emergency scenario.
Even coming off a subpar 2016, Plouffe is still likely seeking a starting position at the hot corner and a multiyear commitment. However, considering we are mere weeks away from spring training, Plouffe might need to lower his demands to find a home.
Aside from the closer role, Washington’s most pressing need currently is a quality backup for veteran first baseman Ryan Zimmerman. Zimmerman has struggled the past two seasons with injuries and subpar performance, making him a major question heading into this year. Clint Robinson has served in this role the past two seasons, but he posted a woeful .637 OPS in 2016 and did not have an extra base hit after the All-Star break. This is unacceptable and Washington must upgrade.
If Plouffe is willing to serve in a reserve capacity, I could easily see him starting 30-40 games at first base, 10-15 at third and 5-10 as the designated hitter, even with excellent seasons and perfect health from Zimmerman and Anthony Rendon. Unfortunately both players have struggled with past injuries, making it likely he would see additional playing time during the year. Not to mention pinch hitting opportunities nearly every game, giving him another 50-100 at-bats. Plouffe could see easily have 300+ at-bats without injuries to others and the potential for significantly more if they do, making this a very important role for the Nationals in 2017.
Washington should take advantage of the hefty supply of corner infielders on the market, plus the calendar saying January, and aggressively target Trevor Plouffe to provide insurance behind Zimmerman and Rendon.