Even star-laden teams need role players. Sometimes the role players – Sandy Amoros, Brian Doyle, Travis Ishikawa. Billy Bates, Tom Lawless, Al Weis – make the biggest impact when it counts the most. In some instances, it’s their only impact for an entire career. These unsung players become key components to a title-contending club.
Frequently, they’re only called into service due to injury, desperation or both. One player who has been a significant factor for the Washington Nationals — helping them maintain a hefty NL East lead without starting shortstop and future star Trea Turner — is Wilmer Difo.
Turner’s right wrist was broken by a Pedro Strop fastball in a June 29 game versus the Chicago Cubs. He is out for an undetermined duration. At the time of the injury, the bullpen was the Nationals’ priority for their second half and subsequent postseason run. The injuries and inconsistency in the bullpen as it stood would undoubtedly have been the Nationals’ undoing. Turner’s injury made it possible that they would also have to consider a shortstop as well. Their stopgap replacements – Stephen Drew and Difo – did not inspire confidence that they could hold down the position over the long haul. For a club that has often endured dysfunction when general manager Mike Rizzo approaches ownership with proposed deals — only to have them nixed for inconsistent and capricious reasons — having to fix the bullpen while simultaneously searching for a competent backup shortstop who could play every day was an all-but-impossible task.
Out of necessity — based on the market, their internal concerns, and a sufficient lead to avoid a state of panic — they gave Difo the chance. He rewarded the club with a .373/.436/.552 slash in July, eliminating the need for a utility player who could play shortstop. As a result, they were accorded the freedom to fill their primary needs in the bullpen by acquiring Sean Doolittle, Ryan Madson and Brandon Kintzler. They acquired a high-quality utility player who does not play shortstop, Howie Kendrick.
Difo was once a notable prospect who, in 2014 in A-ball, appeared to have star potential. That year with Hagerstown, Difo posted a .315/.360/.470 slash with 14 homers and 49 stolen bases in 136 games. As he rose through the system, his numbers stabilized at a lower level, but still had a .727 minor-league OPS with occasional pop and speed. In his brief forays into the big leagues, he did little to warrant anything more than a shrug as a backup on a big league roster or a Quad-A excess piece to be recalled in case of emergency. However, his value is showing now that he has been pressed into service. At age 25, perhaps this is a late-blooming opportunity for him to be granted a bigger role.
His defense at shortstop has been excellent, as expected; the offense is a bonus. For a the Nationals, who have a lineup with power from top to bottom, there was no overt need to get anything from Difo other than mediocre competence at the plate and airtight defense in the field. The offense he has provided is surprising. It’s a stretch to say that Difo turned a corner and has found the magic he exhibited in Hagerstown – he did have a .400 BABIP in July, so a fall to earth is not just likely, it’s guaranteed – but his play could be retrospectively viewed as a major factor in what the Nationals accomplish in the next two months and the playoffs.
His contribution extends from on-field practicality to off-field intangible realities. Had he not performed, the Nationals would have been forced to overuse and expose the veteran Stephen Drew, who has slowed to the point that he cannot handle shortstop regularly and is so injury-prone that he would not last. He’s on the disabled list now with an abdominal strain. Turner is just now heading to Florida to begin his rehab. His return should not be expected until late August at the earliest. For a club with championship aspirations and a legitimate shot at achieving that goal, the Nationals were not in a position to bicker about improving area A or B — and having the ability to do one but not both — due to ownership mandate and limited options.
The bullpen took precedence during Difo’s hot streak. That gave them the freedom to not even consider a shortstop in lieu of bolstering the bullpen. If they do win that elusive postseason series or even go beyond that, Difo will have been an under-appreciated contributor and should be recognized as such.
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