When Jayson Werth hit the disabled list on Tuesday with a left wrist contusion, the Washington Nationals didn't have a lot of options on the forty man roster that could replace him. The Nats had just four healthy position players they could have turned to. One of those four position players was catcher Dan Butler, so they really just had three options. In kind of an odd move, the Nats went with the least experienced option they had.
Wilmer Difo was a breakout performer in the Nats system last season, batting .315/.360/.470 with 31 doubles, 7 triples, 14 HR, and 49 SB (in 58 attempts) in 610 PA for Class A Hagerstown in the South Atlantic League. The 23-year-old performed so well in Hagerstown last season that he shot up the Nats' prospect ranks. Let's take a look at what John Sickels of Minor League Ball had to say about Difo prior to this season.
6) Wilmer Difo, INF, Grade B-: Age 22, came out of nowhere to hit .315/.360/.470 with 49 steals and 14 homers in Low-A. Switch-hitter, speed and some pop, competent defender at both second base and shortstop. "Wilmer Difo" is a good name for a Jedi Knight.
Difo did seem to come out of nowhere last season. Prior to 2014, Difo had never done anything all that impressive as a professional. He spent his first three years in rookie ball, never batting higher than .288 and not flashing a whole lot of power (17 doubles, 15 triples, 1 HR... in three years). He hit .217/.296/.348 with 4 HR as he bounced around the three levels of A ball in 2013. Suddenly last season, something clicked. He stayed in the Sally League all year long and raked the whole year, winning the league's MVP award.
The Nats response to this was that they thought they had a future big league middle infielder in the system. The Nats minor league pitching depth and outfield depth looked fairly strong, but legitimate infield prospects were a bit of a weakness in the system. With Difo eligible to be selected in the Rule V Draft, the Nats placed him on the forty man roster this past November. Still, he hadn't made it out of A ball yet. The move didn't really seem to signify that they thought he was close to the majors.
It did make sense to ramp up the aggressiveness with Difo a bit to begin the season. Now a member of the forty man roster, Difo spent most of Spring Training with the big club. They had him begin the year at High A Potomac (up one level) to begin the season, which made perfect sense after the dominance he showed in Hagerstown last year. Difo responded well, batting .320/.386/.533 with 3 HR in his first nineteen games before getting a quick callup to AA.
Giving him the call to Harrisburg after less than a month in A+ ball seemed like it might have been a bit fast, but he's seemed confident there in his first couple of weeks. I'd say that he hasn't missed a beat, but that might be a little bit of an exaggeration. He's definitely hit the ball well, batting .308 in 56 plate appearances with 9 extra base hits. His walk rate (never real high to begin with) has plummeted, though, as he's drawn just one walk in those two weeks at AA. Difo certainly hasn't looked overmatched, but... well... it's been two weeks.
Players go on hot streaks that last a couple of weeks all the time, and the jump from A ball to AA can often be one of the most important steps in a player's development. Players in A ball are throwing more and better breaking balls than they used to, but hitters still see a lot more fastballs there than they do at the upper levels. Hitters still aren't going to see too many breaking balls that are as well developed as they are in the majors when they're at AA, but they're going to get a better idea of how to hit when they're facing pitchers with more polished stuff. They're also going to get a better idea of how some of those pitchers are going to attack them.
Difo is just starting to adjust to that jump from A ball to AA ball. He's had just 56 plate appearances and was on fire when he was promoted. It's carried over, but now that the league has seen him a bit, they are (were) probably going to start attacking him differently and try to find some holes in his swing. Sometimes it's good for a young hitter to struggle a bit at those lower levels so that they get more comfortable making adjustments. It would certainly provide Difo a lower pressure environment where both he and the Nats can start correcting those holes in his swing once some of those
AA pitchers major league pitchers expose them. It's going to happen... It happens with almost all young players.
On Tuesday, the Nats made a really aggressive decision with Difo by promoting him to the majors. All indications are that the plan is for this to be a short term move. Jayson Werth was placed on the disabled list retroactively, so he'll be eligible to return a week from Sunday. Anthony Rendon has reportedly resumed some baseball activities (again), so maybe the Nats are a little more hopeful about his timetable than they're letting on. The likelihood is that Difo is only going to be up for a week (or two?). He'll probably only lose out on a couple of weeks of development time before being sent back to Harrisburg. That still doesn't make me particularly comfortable with the decision to promote him.
As I mentioned at the top, the options among position players on the forty man roster were pretty limited....
- Dan Butler is a third catcher batting .203/.309/.275 in Syracuse. He can't play anywhere else
- Matt den Dekker has shown some signs of life with the bat this past week in Syracuse, but that's brought his season line up to .224/.278/.252. He could play all three outfield positions
- Brian Goodwin has been less than stellar at Harrisburg, batting .267/.321/.400 with just 1 HR. Like den Dekker, he could play any of the three outfield spots
Difo does have an edge over all three of these players in that he can fill in (presumably) at any infield position if need be. With Danny Espinosa pressed into a starting role, the Nats didn't really have a utility infielder on the 25 man roster. Dan Uggla is limited to second base. Clint Robinson or Tyler Moore could play first base (insert joke about Tyler Moore fielding grounders at third base here), but they couldn't play anywhere else on the infield. Either Moore or Robinson could fill in as an extra outfielder in a pinch, even if they are both statues out there. With Werth on the disabled list, the Nats don't really have any need for a plus defensive outfielder on the bench anyway. Maybe den Dekker or Goodwin would upgrade Bryce Harper defensively late in a game, but that's never going to happen. Denard Span and Michael Taylor are the two best defensive outfielders in the system, so neither of them are ever going to be pulled for defense.
Still, all three of those players listed above have extensive experience above A ball, which Difo does not. Goodwin hasn't reached the majors yet, but he has 943 plate appearances at AA or higher. Matt den Dekker reached AA in 2011 and has been bouncing back and forth between AAA and the majors the past couple of years. Both appear to be guys that will never be more than a fourth outfielder at the big league level at this point, so there's less concern about possibly stalling their development.
Difo, on the other hand, seems to be a guy that the Nats are hanging their hat on as a future starter up the middle. Promoting him even for a week or two could actually be good for his development if he gets 15-20 plate appearances against the best pitchers in the world and files that experience away for later. However, it could also risk burning his confidence if he comes up and struggles badly and/or finds himself warming the bench for the next two weeks. I like Difo, but I'm not a big fan of the fact that he got the call yesterday.