A year ago, Wilmer Difo was still a relatively unknown quantity, a toolsy infielder whose luster as a prospect was fading entering his age-25 season. With just 46 major league games on his résumé, his future as a big leaguer was unclear. Would he eventually become an everyday player? Was his future as a bench piece? Neither? Teams inquired about Difo in trade talks, but the Washington Nationals held onto him, banking on the explosive skill set they signed for $20,000 and believed translated to the highest level.
The club was rewarded for its patience in 2017. First, Difo, in somewhat of a surprise, made the Opening Day roster. Then, when Trea Turner broke his wrist in late June, Difo became the everyday shortstop for two months. He batted .303 with a .759 OPS and nine steals over the remainder of the season, providing a needed energy to the veteran ballclub while solidifying his status as a legitimate major leaguer and as a valuable piece for an organization that doesn’t have top infield talent in the upper minors.
“I felt super good,” a dreadlocked Difo said earlier this month at Nationals Winterfest. “I felt better when I started playing every day. I felt more comfortable, better, more confident in myself. And I think that’s what I need, to play every day.”
Difo’s job title in 2018 will be super utility man, but his emergence last season means Washington has someone in place in case Daniel Murphy isn’t ready for Opening Day. The all-star second baseman underwent microfracture surgery on his right knee on Oct. 20, giving his knee five months and nine days to recuperate in time for Opening Day in Cincinnati on March 29. Microfracture knee surgery recovery can take as long as 12 months, but there are examples of players suiting up after five. Club officials have said they’re optimistic.
Difo would start at second base if Murphy isn’t ready. He’s a shortstop by trade, but Difo has made 21 starts at second base in the majors plus another 90 in the minors. He can handle it.
“Short is my natural position, but I don’t have a problem playing second base,” said Difo, who also played third base and each outfield spot in 2017. “I think I feel comfortable there at second base, and secure.”
Difo has spent the offseason playing shortstop for Aguilas Cibaenas in the Dominican Winter League. He is batting .319 with an .788 OPS in 23 games. He has made three errors after committing just six and, according to advanced metrics, ranked as one of the top defensive shortstops in the majors.
“I think the key was confidence,” Difo said. “The confidence that came with playing every day. I loosened up and had more confidence. I play tremendous defense. I think that was the key. I kept working when I played every day and I think that was the key.”
Difo could have the chance to build that confidence with another temporary everyday role. It may end up doubling as an audition to start at second base permanently beyond 2018; Murphy’s contract is up after next season, and Difo is under team control through the 2022 campaign. At the very least, the Nationals know they have a capable major leaguer at their disposal for years to come.
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