Never lacking in swagger, Wilmer Difo arrived at Nationals Winterfest earlier this month with a hairstyle resembling Odell Beckham Jr.’s — only redder on top. Pedro Severino, a fellow Dominican prospect, wasn’t a fan.
“Muy malo,” Severino joked. Very bad.
Difo, of course, disagreed, tilting the front of his red Nationals cap up to show off the dyed look to a group of reporters.
“Nuevo flow,” Difo called it. New flow.
It was hours before the Nationals traded the disgruntled Danny Espinosa to the Angels for two minor league pitchers and cleared the path for the 24-year-old infielder to land on Washington’s Opening Day roster for the first time. But Difo was already aspiring to assume a new role.
“I feel good. I’m super ready,” Difo said in Spanish. “I’m playing in the Dominican, and it’s going super well over there. I’ll be ready for spring training and see what they have for me. My hope is that they’ll keep me up in the big leagues the entire season. I know I feel ready and I could help the team a lot.”
The next day, Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo was asked about his plans for his bench. It was approximately 12 hours after he had officially unloaded Espinosa, whose Nationals career had effectively concluded three days earlier when the club acquired Adam Eaton. Rizzo had dodged declaring roles, but the resulting changes were clear: Eaton would play center field, allowing Trea Turner to return to shortstop and bumping Espinosa to the bench. The Nationals knew Espinosa wouldn’t approve of the demotion and ultimately planned to employ someone else as their utility infielder next season.
Stephen Drew excelled in the position when healthy last season. He provided some left-handed pop off the bench. with eight home runs and an 0.864 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in 165 plate appearances. He was steady at second base, shortstop and third base — and well-liked in the clubhouse. In all, he was a very valuable piece for a very strong bench. But he remains a free agent. The Nationals haven’t closed the door on a possible return, but Drew is in search of more playing time entering his age-34 campaign and probably a raise on the $3 million he collected in 2016. The parameters could place him on another team.
Rizzo said it was “still early in the offseason,” suggesting the person to fill the void could come from elsewhere, but he also acknowledged that there could be “a little more dependence on our younger players in the minor leagues” next season. He specified only one player: Difo.
“Speed, switch hitter, good defense — certainly at short and second, learning how to play third,” Rizzo said. “So I think his role could increase in importance.”
The Nationals think highly of Difo, as do other clubs — at least one, the Padres, has asked for Difo in trade discussions and been rebuffed. The reasons are clear: Difo is an athletic, brawny, switch-hitting middle infielder with speed who plays the game with flair and aggression. In baseball nomenclature, he is “toolsy,” and baseball people love tools.
Difo wasn’t always highly touted. Most baseball prospects in the Dominican Republic are discharged from the major league pipeline if they don’t sign with an organization by their 17th birthday. Difo signed at age 18, in 2011, for $20,000. He was a scrawny 5-foot-11 five years ago but beefed up and earned South Atlantic League MVP honors for Class A Hagerstown as a 22-year-old shortstop in 2014, harnessing his skills and coming to avoid the emotional episodes that had plagued him earlier in his career. Slightly old for Low-A, he became a legitimate big league prospect with the performance.
He debuted in the majors the next season and returned in late July this season to replace Drew when he was on the disabled list. Difo hit .276 and his first career home run in 66 plate appearances across 31 games, including his first three as a third baseman at any level to add to his versatility. He earned himself a spot on the postseason roster and appeared in two playoff games as a pinch-hitter and struck out in the most important at-bat of his career — against Clayton Kershaw with two runners on base in Game 5 of the NLDS to record the final out of the Nationals’ season.
“I knew that at-bat was going to go to me because there was nobody else left on the bench,” said Difo, who was hitting .333 in 12 games at shortstop in the Dominican winter league through Wednesday. “So I knew the biggest at-bat was going to me, and look who it was against. But it’s an at-bat like any other. The thing is it was an at-bat that was going to make a difference in an important game. But I felt good, and to have an at-bat against that horse, you gain a lot of experience. He struck me out. That’s something that happens to baseball players, but I’ll get him next year.”
With 46 regular season appearances on his resume, Difo has exceeded rookie limits but is still regarded as a prospect and one of Washington’s best, at that, despite his looming 25th birthday in April, which again makes him older than most of his peers. Earlier this month, Baseball America listed Difo as the Nationals’ fourth-best prospect, after Victor Robles, Erick Fedde, and Juan Soto. His power has diminished in the upper levels — he’s hit just nine home runs in 903 plate appearances above Class A Potomac — and could improve his defensive consistency, but Difo is a major-league-ready asset the Nationals may depend on in 2017.
“As a rookie, you learn,” Difo said. “It was a lot to experience. I experienced different situations, tight situations. Now that I’ve been there, I’ll be more comfortable in those situations. That experience will help me be prepared.”