WEST PALM BEACH, FLA. — If Wilmer Difo had it his way, he’d get to play every position, his locker would be stuffed with four or five different gloves, and he would be associated with versatility more than any other player in baseball.
Shortstop and second base are natural for him. First and third are more than doable, too. He likes center more than the corners in the outfield, and that’s good because he started there against the St. Louis Cardinals in a Grapefruit League game Saturday. Catcher? Manager Dave Martinez wants to make him the “emergency” option behind Yan Gomes and Kurt Suzuki. Difo is ready to learn. How about pitcher? Martinez is worried Difo would try to throw “a thousand miles per hour.” Difo thinks he’d be just fine.
“Oh, I could pitch,” Difo, 26, said earlier this month. “Fastball maybe 92, 93, 94 [mph]. Curveball. Change-up. All that. Put me out there.”
He let a stern look crack into a smile. Then he winked. That’s Difo. He loves the challenge of playing a new spot. He loves the attention that comes with it. He loves being on the field, doing whatever it takes to get there, and Martinez sees him as a “super utility" guy who bounces from shortstop to second to third and, possibly, to any of the three outfield spots. That may be needed now more than ever: Outfielder Michael A. Taylor will miss a “significant amount of time” with left hip and left knee sprains, Martinez said Friday. Taylor, who was injured Thursday, is the Nationals’ versatile fourth outfielder who excels in center and can play left or right, too. His absence cuts deep into the team’s outfield depth and will force Martinez to get creative until Taylor recovers.
That means getting Difo more time in center in the final weeks of spring training. It could also mean shifting him to left or right field, depending on the situation, because utility man Howie Kendrick is recovering from a mild left hamstring strain. Martinez doesn’t see Difo as a starting outfielder, even on days when Adam Eaton or Victor Robles needs a rest. The Nationals will need to figure out their true fourth option while Taylor is out, whether it’s Andrew Stevenson or someone outside the organization. But Difo could fill an outfield hole if in-game moves create one, Martinez figures, because of his speed, arm and adaptability.
Washington entered camp looking to make Difo more versatile than he already was. That has since become even more critical.
“You want to be a guy that can do anything the manager needs,” Difo said in early March through team interpreter Octavio Martinez. “I take a lot of pride in that. And it’s fun.”
Before discussing his work in the outfield, and before jogging out to center against the Cardinals, Difo had a story to tell Saturday morning.
It was about him and this whole catching thing. Martinez hasn’t had him put on gear, at least not yet, but Difo is more than willing to try. The Nationals actually scouted him as a catcher in the Dominican Republic back in 2010. His eyes lit up as he recalled the workout. They had him get behind the plate to see how he moved while blocking balls. He also caught a bullpen session. The results may be why he became an infielder instead.
“I caught a bullpen of one of the players throwing 95, 94 [mph],” Difo recalled through Martinez.
“No cup, no nothing,” Difo said himself, cutting Martinez off.
“He had no gear,” Martinez added.
“No face mask,” Difo finished, and that was that.
Center field is the more pressing matter, considering how thin the Nationals’ outfield is without Taylor. Difo has made four career starts in the outfield — one in left field, one in center and two in right — compared with 105 at second base, 59 at shortstop and 25 at third. He likes center because there is more space than when he is in left or right. Martinez wants him to take command on any ball he can reach, just as he advises Robles and Taylor. If Taylor and Kendrick are not ready for Opening Day, and the Nationals don’t make any additions before then, their bench probably would be a catcher, first baseman Matt Adams, Difo, Stevenson and utility infielder Adrian Sanchez. Martinez admitted Friday morning there is “no outfield depth” in that situation. It only amplifies the need for Difo to take on more roles.
On Saturday, before the exhibition game, Difo worked with outfield coach Bob Henley on backtracking for balls. He and left fielder Juan Soto took turns, shuffling one after the other, and caught lobbed tosses from Henley with their bare hands. Reading hits off the bat, especially in games, will bring a whole new challenge. But Difo thinks communication is his biggest task, learning the left and right fielders’ tendencies, getting used to how the Nationals shift his positioning from one batter to the next.
Those nuances are unfamiliar as the regular season nears. Everything in the outfield is. And so the next steps of Difo’s evolution, in becoming the super utility guy these Nationals need, will have to happen fast.
“I watch him shag balls [in the outfield], and he moves around pretty good,” Martinez said ahead of Saturday’s game. “Like I’ve said, I wouldn’t necessarily do this if I didn’t think he could do it. He’s pretty good out there.”