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Washington Nationals prospect Wilmer Difo seems to be struggling a bit

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The Washington Nationals placed Anthony Rendon on the disabled list with a strained quad on Friday. Rather than adding the only infielder in the minors that was already on the forty man roster, they added Emmanuel Burriss to the roster. Let's see if we can determine why they went with Burriss instead of recalling Wilmer Difo.

Wilmer Difo's meteoric rise seems to have hit the skids a bit. Since returning to AA on June 5, Difo is batting .268 with 1 XBH and 0 walks in 82 plate appearances.
Wilmer Difo's meteoric rise seems to have hit the skids a bit. Since returning to AA on June 5, Difo is batting .268 with 1 XBH and 0 walks in 82 plate appearances.
Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

When the Washington Nationals called up Wilmer Difo in May to replace Jayson Werth on the roster, it was a bit of a surprise. At the time, the 23-year-old middle infield prospect had just 56 plate appearances above A+ ball. While Difo emerged last season at Hagerstown and is expected to become a big league regular within the next couple of seasons, he seemed to be an odd fit for a couple of reasons.

  1. His lack of experience in the high minors figured to hinder his ability to make an impact off the bench at the big league level
  2. He's at a stage of his development where you'd rather he be playing every day in AA than riding the pine and getting sporadic playing time in the majors

Still, the Nats went with Difo over Matt den Dekker or Brian Goodwin back in May. He ended up getting five plate appearances as he spent two weeks with the big league club. Given that the Nats seemed confident in giving Difo the call last month, it may seem a bit surprising that they went in another direction when Anthony Rendon hit the disabled list on Friday. Rather than calling Difo back up, the Nats purchased the contract of Emmanuel Burriss and added him to the forty man roster. Why not go back to Difo, who wouldn't have required a corresponding roster move?

The obvious answers above still apply, but it's difficult to think that the line of thinking has changed that much about how the Nats want to handle Difo's development in the past month. Perhaps it's performance related. Difo got off to a strong start in Potomac this season, batting .320/.386/.533 before getting the call to Harrisburg. The hot start carried over a bit when he moved to AA for the first time. He didn't hit any home runs in his first stint with the Senators, but he did bat .308 with 9 extra base hits in 56 plate appearances.

He certainly hasn't been nearly as successful in the past month at Harrisburg since being demoted. Difo has hit for a respectable batting average (.268) in his 82 plate appearances since returning to Harrisburg, but that's about the only good thing that can be said about his recent performance. Of his 22 hits since returning to the minors, 21 of them have been singles (the extra base hit was a double). In 82 plate appearances, Difo has a 17:0 strikeout to walk ratio. In fact, in 132 AA plate appearances, Difo has drawn one walk so far this season. I realize that plate discipline isn't his strong suit, but Difo's walk rate this season makes Jeff Francoeur look like Barry Bonds.

So Difo isn't hitting for power. He's not working walks. He's striking out in more than 20% of his plate appearances since the demotion. On top of that, he still has just 137 plate appearances above A ball. Almost all prospects hit a bit of a wall at some point (most do at several points) in their development, and Difo seems to be hitting one right now. We see the term "mastering the level" used mockingly in the forums here at Federal Baseball sometimes, but that cliche exists because there is some validity to it.

The two biggest jumps that a prospect usually makes are from A to AA ball and from AAA (or AA) to the majors. When a hitter makes the jump from A to AA, he starts seeing much more polished and refined pitchers. Their command is better. They have a better plan of attack and are more capable of making adjustments. Most importantly, the breaking balls that he's seeing start getting a lot nastier.

Difo really seems to be struggling with that jump right now. Even the one part of his offensive game that has been decent has been driven by a .355 BABIP. His one walk in 132 AA plate appearances tells us that he's either having some trouble identifying pitches or that he's just not being selective enough (most likely both). The lack of power production would seem to fall in line with a lack of selectivity. Hitters tend to have more trouble driving the ball when they're chasing what the pitcher wants them to swing at.

Does any of this mean that Difo is done as a prospect?  Of course not. Players that don't hit that point where they struggle for a bit in the minors are few and far between. He's much more likely to improve his approach at the plate and pitch recognition by continuing to play every day in the minors rather than sitting on the bench in D.C.

Burriss won't bring much excitement to the table, but calling him up made a lot more sense than promoting Difo... even if it did mean that they had to move Reed Johnson to the 60 day DL to clear a spot on the forty man for him.   He's exactly the kind of guy that teams like to stash in AAA as the 26th or 27th man on the roster to come up and fill a utility role in case a starter gets injured. He can play all four infield positions passably. His bat is uninspiring, but he's not going to spend much time in the batter's box anyway.

Unlike Difo, Burriss doesn't really have much upside at this point. There's no reason to be concerned about stalling his development by sitting him on the bench. He does have that one valuable tool off the bench in an area where the Nats don't seem to have a whole lot of depth... speed. Burriss isn't a particularly great base-stealer (40 for 55 in MLB career, 201 for 267 in MiLB career), but he's someone that the Nats could consider pinch running with in a game that's close and late.

As for Difo, it looks like it's time for the Nats to slow down his climb through the minors a bit. I don't want to seem too focused on the atrocious walk rate, though it is concerning. If he's not walking very often because he's getting a lot of good pitches to attack, that's something that will likely regress as the sample size grows. His lack of power and his rising strikeout rate since returning to Harrisburg tell me that this isn't the case, though. Let him work through this in AA, playing every day.