His Future Is Bright, if Not Exactly Clear

The unmistakable sign that LeBron James was going to pass up college and proceed directly into the NBA came when his mother bought him a $50,000 Hummer for his 18th birthday.

Those searching for clues to whether Encino Crespi pitcher-shortstop Trevor Plouffe might turn down a scholarship to USC to accept a lucrative signing bonus from a major league team can't conclude anything from the car Plouffe is driving.

It's a 1992 light blue Cadillac with only 33,000 miles, given to him recently by an aunt. Hardly the vehicle of choice for a potential bonus baby.

Scouts are going to have to do their homework to figure out what Plouffe really wants. He's enamored with going to USC because he loves college baseball. But he also has supreme confidence in his skills and wouldn't be intimidated by an immediate jump into the professional ranks.

"I look at it as a win-win situation," he said. "I have USC already. It will be a family decision. I figure to be playing baseball no matter what."

First, everyone must solve a pressing question: Is Plouffe a pitcher or a shortstop?

That provokes sharp debate and genuine disagreement among well-respected scouts.

"The pro guys are really split because he is a prospect as a shortstop and pitcher," USC Coach Mike Gillespie said.

As a hitter last season, Plouffe batted .500 with 55 hits, 47 runs batted in, 17 stolen bases and six home runs.

His coach at Crespi, Scott Muckey, made this startling observation: "I don't remember a guy ever not slumping or at least not getting hits. That's never happened with him."

As a pitcher, Plouffe was 13-1 with an 0.71 earned-run average. When Crespi needed to win nine consecutive games at the end of the season to reach the playoffs and later avoid elimination, Plouffe won four games and saved three others. In the Southern Section Division IV final, Crespi won, 1-0, behind Plouffe's three-hitter.

"I'm surprised any time he loses," Muckey said.

Plouffe is 6 feet 2, 175 pounds and is only 17. He has gained about 15 pounds over last season, adding power to his bat and increasing velocity on a fastball that reaches 90 mph. During a game on a windy Chatsworth High field this month, he sent a ball flying over the center-field fence with the easiest of swings.

Bret Saberhagen, a two-time American League Cy Young Award winner who's an assistant coach at Calabasas, knows something about being a two-way player in high school.

When he was playing at Reseda Cleveland in 1982, scouts were divided about whether he was a pitcher or shortstop. He once hit three home runs in a game, just as Plouffe has done. The Kansas City Royals drafted Saberhagen in the 19th round and made him a pitcher after he threw a no-hitter in the City Championship game at Dodger Stadium.

Regarding Plouffe, Saberhagen said, "It's going to be a tough decision for him to make. He's a great pitcher. He's not just trying to throw the ball by people. In the field, he's got great range, a great arm. He's got a quick bat and good wheels. He's got great instincts as a player, and that's something you can't teach. I see him as a shortstop. He's that good in the field."

Plouffe plans to let USC's coaches or the team that drafts him in June make the final decision on which position he should play.

"I'm a shortstop who pitches," he said. "Ultimately, it's up to whomever lets you play. I'd be fine with both."

One of the qualities that makes him so valuable is his willingness to work hard while maintaining a humble attitude.

"There's always things to work on," he said. "In no way is my game flawless."

But those who have followed his progress over the last three seasons at Crespi know he has established himself as one of the best in Southern California.

"It's our belief if he's not a first-rounder now he's a first-rounder later," Gillespie said.

Muckey calls Plouffe the most versatile player he has coached since taking over the Crespi program in 1987. And beware of the team that must face him in the season opener in two weeks.

In his first varsity game as a freshman in 2001, Plouffe threw a five-inning no-hitter against Lawndale Leuzinger. In his sophomore opener against Pasadena Muir, he threw a six-inning, two-hit shutout with 11 strikeouts.

In last season's opener against Oak Park, he threw another six-inning, two-hit shutout with nine strikeouts.

When Plouffe is on the mound in the season opener, it's close to a guaranteed victory.

As for how he plans to deal with the expected seasonlong speculation about his future, Plouffe said, "I don't dwell on it. It's something going on. A lot of it has nothing to do with me. If I go out and play hard every game, nothing bad is going to happen. When you start playing for the scouts and not for the team, that's when it starts going bad."

Eric Sondheimer can be reached at eric.sondheimer@latimes.com.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World