Wilmer Difo wins South Atlantic League MVP

Hagerstown Suns

Wilmer Difo talks with his mother, Carmen Santos, a hair stylist who still lives in Santiago, Dominican Republic, every day. They speak over the phone, usually after he’s done playing shortstop for the Nationals’ affiliate at Class A Hagerstown. When he has a bad game, which has become a rare event, she tells him tomorrow is another day.

Difo did not know his father growing up, and “she has always been a mother and a father at the same time,” Difo said. “She’s everything.”  He draws motivation from an urge to care for her, through baseball, as she cared for him.

On Thursday, Difo could pass along good news to his mother. He was named the South Atlantic League MVP after a season that placed him on the prospect map. Difo batted .321/.366/.474 with 13 home runs. He stole 49 bases and got caught only nine times. In 132 games, he scored 90 runs and drove in 88. He drew 36 and struck out only 62 times, a tick over 10 percent of his plate appearances.

Difo has moved up prospect lists and enhanced his stock with the organization. The Nationals have believed Difo’s athleticism could make him a major leaguer since they signed him five years for a small sum. He is built like a small NFL cornerback, a bundle of fast-twitch muscles who blasts line drives and runs like a sprinter. The difference this season was the culmination of a long process of Difo harnessing his ability.

“Being more consistent,” Difo said back in May through Hagerstown hitting coach Luis Ordaz, who translated his English into Spanish. “It doesn’t matter about results. Don’t try to change anything. Always be on the same plan, every day. That helped a lot.”

Difo could not constrain his emotions when he began his career. He played with angry desperation, a product of where he grew up, and the pressure he felt to provide for family back in the Dominican Republic. If he struck out, or if a call went against him, he would stand still in the infield the next inning, staring at the dirt. He would chuck bats and throw tantrums.

But Difo learned. The transition was not easy – he’s 22, slightly old for Low A. The Nationals credit their Dominican Summer League manager Sandy Martinez, a miracle worker for many players, with helping Difo harness his talents. By the time Difo arrived at Hagerstown this season, he no longer fumed after making outs or errors.

“He’s given me a lot of gray hairs. But he’s finally grown up,” Nationals international scouting director Johnny DiPuglia said. “He’s at the point of his life where he can accept failure.”

During a game earlier this season, Difo destroyed a line drive in the wrong direction, straight at the second baseman. He hit the ball so hard it had been caught for the third out before he had taken two steps out of the box. Difo still sprinted all the way through first base, then grabbed his mitt and calmly took his position.

Nationals assistant general manager Doug Harris, the former farm director, happened to be sitting in the stands. Harris turned to the person sitting to next him, grinned and said, “Duly noted.”

Difo’s long path will leave the Nationals with an interesting choice this winter. Since Difo has been in the organization for five years, they would need to add him to the 40-man roster to protect him from the Rule 5 Draft. It would be almost unforeseen for a player yet to play above Class Low-A to be plucked in the draft and stored on an active roster all season. But the Nationals really, really do not want to lose him. Leaving Difo off the 40-man roster would be a small risk. The Nationals may not be willing to take it.

They want Difo to be a part of their future. And for Difo, that will mean the chance to help those who helped him.

“It’s a lot of work,” Difo said. “I always think about my mom and my family. If I work hard, I will be able to take care of them.”

>>> Along with Difo’s honor, top Nationals prospect Lucas Giolito was named the South Atlantic League’s Most Outstanding Pitcher and Most Outstanding Major League prospect. Class A Potomac Manager Tripp Keister was named the Carolina League manager of the year.

Adam Kilgore covers the Nationals for The Washington Post.
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