Former Arundel standout Pleffner looks to advance in Nationals' system

Shawn Pleffner, 24, took a lead off second base at the minor-league complex of the Washington Nationals at Viera, Fla., on a 72-degree day.

The former Arundel High School standout was among a group of four top minor-league prospects working on leads on fly balls.

"Get a secondary lead. Get a good one," shouted Gary Cathcart, an instructor in the Nationals' farm system.

It might seem at first glance that Pleffner, a 6-foot-5, 225-pounder with the build of an NFL linebacker, would be better off just honing his skill at the bat. But learning to run the bases is among the tasks the first baseman faces on the east coast of Florida during spring training sessions that begin around 8 a.m.

"A good example is Cal Ripken Jr.," Pleffner said of the Orioles' Hall of Famer. "He was not the fastest runner — but he was a good baserunner. You really have to pay attention to the situations around you."

That's especially true if you want to beat the odds and move up the minor-league ladder to the big leagues. Pleffner, a product of the Gambrills-Odenton Recreation Council, reported to spring training as part of the Nationals' accelerated program for top prospects.

"You have to feel good about it," Pleffner said of showing up early for minor league camp. "It is just more time on the field and more one-on-one with the coaches. These coaches spend a lot of time out here. Any information we can get from them is a big thing."

Last season, Pleffner hit .288 with the Single-A Hagerstown Suns of the South Atlantic League, with 24 doubles, four homers and 52 RBIs in 361 at-bats.

"I had a rough patch at the end. I was thinking too much up there," said Pleffner, sitting in a minor-league dugout with Space Coast Stadium, the major league home of the Nats, in the distance beyond the left-field fence.

This past offseason, Pleffner went back to his roots a bit, talking with Bernie Walter, his former Arundel High coach.

"I really went back to the basics of what I used to do and think at the plate," said Pleffner, who now lives in Tampa in the offseason.

Mark Scialabba, director of player development for Washington, said the organization is high on the former Four Seasons Elementary and Arundel Middle School student.

"He had a great year last year. We hope he can take a step forward this year," Scialabba said. "He has great hands. Now it is a matter of consistency.

"He runs pretty well for a big man. He is a large man with some body strength," he said. "This is a critical year for him developmentally. We want him to be part of the future of the Nationals, and he is."

Pleffner was listed as the No. 31 prospect in the Washington system before last season by Baseball America, an industry leader. The first baseman is not among the top 31 Washington prospects going into 2014, but he is among the top first baseman on the minor league depth chart, according to Baseball America.

The next step up the Washington minor league system from Hagerstown is the high-Single-A Potomac Nationals of the Carolina League in Woodbridge, Va., an hour south of Nationals Park. Pleffner hopes to start the year with Potomac, though roster spots will not be announced until early April.

"I have not thought about the numbers," he said of his goals for 2014. "I want to stay healthy and play 142 games. If there's one stat I am striving for, it is RBIs to try and win ballgames."

Power-hitting first basemen are expected to put up big home run totals, though Pleffner points out that small ball is more important in the National League.

"I don't think you can teach a power hitter how to hit for average," said Pleffner, who has the potential to do both. "I think the long ball will come later in my career."

Pleffner was drafted in the 26th round out of Tampa, a Division II program, by the Nationals in 2011, but because of health problems, including a sports hernia, his pro debut came the next year.

He hit .329 with three homers, 17 doubles and 34 RBIs in 216 at bats with the Auburn (N.Y.) Doubledays of the New York-Penn League in 2012, then advanced to Hagerstown last year. He was named by as an organizational all-star in 2012.

Still, Pleffner knows he has a long way to go to make the majors with Washington.

"I still have some great players ahead of me" at first base, he said, including first baseman Adam LaRoche and minor-league slugger Matt Skole, a former third baseman. Also, Washington has started to have All-Star third baseman Ryan Zimmerman take grounders at first for a possible position switch later in his career.

Pleffner's roots influence his baseball memories and affections. He grew up following the Orioles and minor-league affiliate Bowie Baysox, and even once played at Camden Yards in an all-star game his senior year at Arundel.

"I still love the Orioles," he said. "But playing with the Nationals, I have a lot of respect for them. It is a great organization."

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