After extended look, Difo still hasn’t earned everyday job

As our offseason coverage kicks into high gear, we’re going to review each significant player on the Nationals roster. We continue today with Wilmer Difo, who received extensive playing time this season and tried to make the case for himself as a long-term starting second baseman.

PLAYER REVIEW: WILMER DIFO

Age on opening day 2019: 26

How acquired: Signed as international free agent, June 2010

MLB service time: 2 years, 110 days

2018 salary: $557,900

Contract status: Under club control in 2019, arbitration-eligible in 2020, free agent in 2023

2018 stats: 148 G, 456 PA, 408 AB, 55 R, 94 H, 14 2B, 7 3B, 7 HR, 42 RBI, 10 SB, 3 CS, 39 BB, 82 SO, .230 AVG, .298 OBP, .350 SLG, .649 OPS, 3 DRS, 0.4 fWAR, 0.1 bWAR

Quotable: “I don’t think I have to show them anything. They know what I can do. Just same work ethic, keep working hard, doing my job, keep going out there every day and performing, helping the team win any way I can.” - Difo, via interpreter Octavio Martinez, on Aug. 21 upon becoming the starting second baseman following Daniel Murphy’s trade

2018 analysis: Back on opening day, the Nationals weren’t particularly hoping that only four players would take more plate appearances this season than Difo. Much as they liked the versatile infielder, their grand plan was to use him off the bench as a backup at three positions, possibly as a short-term replacement if someone got hurt.

But once it became clear that Murphy not only wouldn’t be ready to begin the season on the active roster but still needed considerable time to complete his rehab from October knee surgery, it became clear Difo was going to have to play every day at second base. And then, once Murphy was traded to the Cubs in August after the Nationals front office conceded a postseason run wasn’t going to happen this year, Difo again became the everyday second baseman.

Difo-Starts-Trot-Blue-v-PHI-sidebar.jpgSo what did the Nats learn about Difo from all that playing time? To be honest, not much they didn’t already know going into the season. He’s a limited offensive player, one who should profile as a good contact hitter whose focus is getting on base but tends to lose that approach every time he hits a ball over the fence. Difo does have some surprising pop, but he doesn’t display that side of his game enough to make up for his low batting average and sub-.300 on-base percentage.

In the field, Difo is a good defensive player, though the stats say he wasn’t as good this year as he was in 2017, when his Defensive Runs Saved rating of 14 ranked among the best in the majors at shortstop. He finished this season with a DRS rating of 3 at second base, 12th in the majors at that position.

2019 outlook: If Difo’s goal this season was to prove to the Nationals he’s ready to be an everyday player for them now, he probably wasn’t successful. It’s not that he doesn’t bring positive qualities to the table, he just doesn’t bring them consistently enough (or in all the right departments) to justify entering 2019 as the club’s starting second baseman.

Difo still should hold a prominent role on next year’s roster. Assuming the Nationals acquire another second baseman, he’ll be asked again to serve as the backup there, at shortstop and at third base. Given his defensive versatility, he’s a valuable asset in that role.

The Nats are going to want Difo to make some advances in his game, though. He’s been in the majors for parts of three seasons now and has totaled nearly 900 plate appearances. It’s time for him to show he knows when it’s appropriate to cut down on his swing and when it’s appropriate to swing for the fences. It’s time for him to be a more consistent defensive player and baserunner. Yes, he brings an explosiveness that can be a legitimate benefit to the team at times. But it’s improvement in the routine stuff that ultimately will determine whether he has a long future in D.C. or not.

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