The Nationals have 21 games left in a difficult season filled with injuries, poor play and the departure of several popular players. This has left many in NatsTown pondering on social media about why they should continue to watch games down the stretch.
The obvious answer is that baseball is awesome and once the final pitch is thrown, we must anxiously wait like a dog for its owner to return home for pitchers and catchers to report next February. And with all due respect to my Caps brethren (congrats on the Stanley Cup!), there is no better live sporting event than an evening at the ballpark.
On the field, I am particularly focusing my attention on second baseman Wilmer Difo. Like many on the Nationals, this has been an up-and-down year for Difo, playing in 130 games and batting .242/.299/.374 with seven home runs and seven stolen bases. However, in the roughly two weeks since the Daniel Murphy trade gave Difo the starting second base gig, he has hit .261/.306/.500 with three home runs. Difo plays outstanding defense at second base and brings an infectious energy to a team filled with veterans. These next few weeks are vital for Difo, who is auditioning for the second base job in 2019.
Before exploring free agency this winter, Washington does have other options in-house to play second base. Howie Kendrick, who injured his Achilles earlier this season, is under contract for 2019 and expected to be ready around spring training. That said, he's 35 and coming off a tough leg injury, so Kendrick might be better as an occasional option at the keystone, rather than the solution.
In addition, prospect Carter Kieboom held his own as a 21-year-old in his first experience at Double-A this season. He needs additional seasoning in the minors, but the Nationals are showing faith in Kieboom by sending him to the Arizona Fall League next month. Kieboom could force his way into the conversation and become an option at second base by midseason.
And as mentioned, free agency offers several tempting options this winter, as it is a good crop of available second baseman. Players such as Brian Dozier, Ian Kinsler, DJ Lemahieu and Jed Lowrie will certainly interest the Nationals, not to mention Murphy could be a possible match.
This will be an extremely busy offseason for general manager Mike Rizzo and the Nationals front office, as they desperately need to acquire a couple of starting pitchers, bullpen depth, a permanent solution at catcher and attempt to re-sign Bryce Harper. If the 26-year-old Difo can give the organization enough evidence over the next three weeks that he can be the everyday second baseman, the Nationals could opt to ignore second base this offseason and go with Difo and Kendrick to begin 2019, while waiting for Kieboom to emerge from the minors. But if Difo struggles, he is likely to be relegated to a career as a backup and Washington would seek another starting option this winter.
These next few weeks could make or break Difo's career and I am keenly interested to see how he responds to the challenge.
Ryan Sullivan blogs about the Nationals at The Nats GM and runs The Nats GM Show podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @TheNatsGM. His views appear here as part of MASNsports.com's season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our pages. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.