Washington Nationals' prospects Wilmer Difo and Lucas Giolito tore up the South Atlantic League this season and the Nats' farmhands walked away with the SAL awards for MVP and "Most Outstanding Pitcher," respectively, when the 2014 campaign was done.
Giolito, the no.1 prospect in the organization was also named the Nationals' Minor League Pitcher of the Year. Both played for the Hagerstown Suns.
Difo's impressive season earned him a mention from Nationals' GM Mike Rizzo, who told 106.7 the FAN in D.C.'s Grant Paulsen and Danny Rouhier this past September that while Giolito, A.J. Cole, Michael Taylor and Steven Souza were well-known prospects, the Nats' system went a lot deeper than the names everyone knows.
"We've got so many other players under the surface of those big four or five names that every publication has," Rizzo told the hosts during one of his weekly in-season appearances.
"You're going to hear names like Difo and [Rafael] Bautista down at A-ball that are dominating at an early age.
"You've got a Dominican Republic academy that is starting to churn out and bear fruit of all of the efforts that Johnny DiPuglia and those guys have put [in] down there."
"We've got a good thing going here," Rizzo continued. "And we're just scratching the surface.
"2014 is going to be a great year for us, but we're built for '14 and the long haul and we've got a lot of good players coming and a lot of good things coming for the Washington Nationals."
Difo, 22, was also named the second recipient of the Nationals' "Bob Boone Award" which is given to the, "Nationals minor leaguer who best demonstrates the professionalism, leadership, loyalty, passion, selflessness, durability, determination and work ethic required to play the game the 'Washington Nationals Way,'" as a press release on the award read.
(Billy Burns, now with the Oakland A's, was the first prospect to win the award when it was handed out for the first time in 2013.)
In 136 games and 610 plate appearances with the Nationals' low-A affiliate this summer, Difo, who signed as an international free agent in 2010, put up a .315/.360/.470 line with 31 doubles, seven triples, 14 HRs and 49 stolen bases, leading the South Atlantic League in hits (176), coming in second in stolen bases, fourth in RBIs (90) and fourth in runs scored (91).
"Wilmer’s a thrill to watch," Giolito told reporters when the Hagerstown teammates were in D.C. late this season to receive their respective organizational awards.
"He’s one of the most exciting players out there on the field," the 20-year-old, 2012 1st Round pick continued.
"He gives it his all every single time. I think he’s completely deserving of the Bob Boone Award. He completely embodies everything that represents. I’m really proud of him."
Difo was thrilled to receive the award.
"It feels absolutely great," he said. "I wasn't expecting it. That's the reason why I worked so hard this year. That was the mentality this year, to achieve something like that, and I'm very happy that I was able to achieve it."
In addition to the fact that he was able to stay healthy for the full season, Difo attributed his success in 2014 to his teammates.
"The key to my success this year was working as a team and playing as a team," he explained. "That's something that I learned this year and that's the reason why I was successful and the team was successful."
Asked how far he could go in the organzation, Difo said, "Big leagues, that's the goal."
With Hagerstown, the switch-hitting infielder split his time fairly evenly between second base (66 G) and short (70 G).
"I actually feel really comfortable playing both positions," Difo told reporters in the nation's capital.
Former Nats' GM Jim Bowden, now a writer with ESPN, wrote on Thursday that the Nationals were "thrilled" with the development from Difo, who, in the one-time general manager's mind, could make the jump to Double-A by the end of the 2015 season and could potentially be an answer at second base at the major league level at some time in the future.
Bowden writes that Difo's "rapid development" might even "influence" the Nats' thinking when it comes to Asdrubal Cabrera, (who is expected to get a deal in the 3-year/$24-27M range depending on who's predicting what he might get as a free agent) if he moves on after the Nationals acquired him from the Cleveland Indians last July.
If the Nats think they could bring Difo up in a year or two, is a one-year deal for a free agent second baseman the more likely route for the Nationals this winter?
Do the the Nationals just have to get the best second baseman they can for next season, rather than relying on Difo's growth continuing, since they're in a window right now where they expect to compete for another postseason berth?
Washington Post writer Adam Kilgore threw Stephen Drew's name out there when he explored possible free agent targets for the Nationals in a recent article about the Nats' options for their infield.
Could the Scott Boras' client sign one of the popular "pillow contracts" after a less-than-impressive, qualifying-offer-affected 2014 campaign?
The WaPost's Nationals beat writer talked Difo at the end of that article, noting that the next decision for the Nats is whether or not to add the young infielder to the 40-Man roster, since he would, otherwise, be eligible for selection in this winter's Rule 5 Draft if not protected...