JUPITER, Fla. - Sometime this spring - maybe later today - the Nationals will continue the process of seeing whether 24-year-old Wilmer Difo has the chops to assimilate into one of the game’s lost arts as a jack-of-all-trades.
But there’s one deal breaker for manager Dusty Baker if he’s going to morph the career infielder into a super utility guy.
“First, he has to demonstrate that he’s not prone to mistakes,” Baker said. “People see stats and this and that, but mistakes - Difo makes mistakes, and he really hasn’t played that long. And we love Difo, but we don’t like mistakes. ... So far, it’s been mistakes on the bases and it’s happened more than a couple of times. So we’re in the process of rounding him out to be a ballplayer - not just a hitter or the speed. If you want to win, if you want to play winning baseball, you’ve got to eliminate mistakes.”
Young players and mistakes - mental or physical - go together like chocolate and peanut butter. Sometimes, it’s throwing to the wrong base or being aggressive on the bases at a point in the game when conservative baserunning might be a better play. Infielders might try to start a double play when a sure single out is preferred. But at his age and with little major league experience, Difo can’t commit those kinds of blunders and wonder why he isn’t playing more.
For most of this spring, Difo has played infield - mostly shortstop, but a little second base and third base, too. He made his outfield debut on March 3 against the Marlins, subbing for center fielder Adam Eaton and playing the final five innings.
Difo usually shows a steady glove and his speed is intriguing. But he’s blocked all around the infield - with Daniel Murphy at second, Trea Turner at short and Anthony Rendon at third. But there are some in the organization that look at the fact that Difo doesn’t give away at-bats, ponder his speed and athleticism and wonder whether a super utility role could be his ticket to the majors.
A generation ago, savvy managers coveted guys who could play multiple positions in the infield and outfield as a way to stretch their rosters. That kind of player could help them accommodate a third catcher or an extra situational reliever. But in the expansion era, that all changed.
“There’s a whole lot more teams and a whole lot more need for guys who can just play, period,” Baker said. “When there are lesser teams and it’s easier to develop a super utility guy because there are less jobs and guys are more willing to be a super utility. Guys now want to be regulars. Always did, but the stakes are so much higher than a regular. It’s like in pitching. Middle relief is a hard sell because the guys making money are closers, maybe setup men, and starters. Guys in the middle, a lot of those guys, you don’t have much bargaining power. ... It’s a hard sell, unless it’s just out of necessity.”
Where does the perfect super utility man start, with athleticism or the mental makeup to prepare to play multiple positions?
“A combination,” Baker said. “You can’t ask a catcher who can’t run to go play outfield. First it starts with athleticism, then it comes with the mindset of being able to.”
In some cases - Difo’s might be one of them - the mindset extends to knowing that not embracing such a multi-faceted role might impede your progress up the organizational ladder. You’ve got to be willing to make the commitment. As he often does, Baker drew on his Dodger days, recalling versatile Derrell Thomas, who toted a stack of gloves waist-high to a game because he never knew which position he might be called on to play.
Some super utility guys do well enough to work their way into regular playing time. Other players reluctantly accept the notion of playing multiple positions as a means to remain employed. But there aren’t as many of them as there once were.
“It’s not an easy thing to do. ... It’s a tough person to find,” Baker said.
* Baker didn’t have an update on how right-hander Max Scherzer fared following his live batting practice session Tuesday. How Scherzer feels today and tomorrow will help the Nationals dictate the next steps in his recovery, but both Baker and pitching coach Mike Maddux are hoping a simulated game is in the ace’s future.
* Catcher Matt Wieters should make his Grapefruit League debut before the Nationals’ next scheduled off-day on March 14, Baker said.
Because Wieters wasn’t ready to go when he signed with the Nationals, and because a sore shoulder slowed Pedro Severino early in camp, Baker is concerned that there aren’t enough games and innings to get all of his catchers their necessary work.
* The Nationals will make their first round of cuts before the March 14 off-day, Baker said.