After the trade that sent Danny Espinosa to the Los Angeles Angels this winter, Mike Rizzo told reporters that the Washington Nationals would likely have to rely on some younger guys like Wilmer Difo to step up take advantage of the opportunity the move provided.
“I think it will [lead to] a little bit more dependence on our younger players in the minor leagues, like a Difo,” Rizzo said.
He described the 24-year-old infielder, signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2010, as, “... a guy who has a good skill set, speed, switch hitter, good defense certainly at short and second,” who is, “learning how to play third.”
“I think that his role could increase in importance,” Rizzo added.
“We’re still early in the offseason and we’re going to think about the bench, we’ll discuss the bench, so the bench could look different at Opening Day.”
After the Nationals’ decision to place Clint Robinson on Tuesday, Adam Lind will be the primary backup at first base and a left-handed bat off the bench.
Chris Heisey is a right-handed bat off the bench and extra outfielder.
Jose Lobaton will back up Matt Wieters, who signed a 1-year/$10.5M free agent deal late this Spring.
Stephen Drew, who returned to D.C. for a second season with the Nats on another one-year deal, will back up at short, second and third.
Following the latest round of roster cuts, Difo and Michael A. Taylor are now seemingly in competition with veteran reliever Jeremy Guthrie for the 25th spot on the Opening Day roster.
Do Rizzo and Co. in the Nationals’ front office and manager Dusty Baker want a long reliever in the pen in Guthrie?
Do they go with a switch-hitting utility man in Difo, who has worked in the outfield this Spring, adding that to the list of positions Rizzo mentioned?
Does the final spot go to Michael A. Taylor, who could fill in for Adam Eaton in center, spell Jayson Werth in left and provide another right-handed bat off the bench?
When Difo has played in the outfield in minor league games this Spring, he’s seen time in center field, which Baker told reporters, as quoted by Washington Post writer Jorge Castillo earlier this month, could make him a valuable asset.
“This is adding to his potential value,” Baker said. “That is a valuable, valuable person. Any time you can move guys around and not lose anything defensively, that is a big, big, big plus.”
Difo told reporters this winter that he wasn’t sure what role he would play within the organization this season, but he said he was ready to do whatever he was asked to do.
“My main priority is try to stay with the team, make the big league club and hopefully be used any way I can to help the team out,” Difo explained.
“That’s what I work for and that’s what I’m striving for this season.”
Difo was 15 for 51 (.294/.327/.412) heading into Grapefruit League play on Wednesday (he went 0 for 3 in the Nats’ loss) with two doubles, two triples, three walks, 10 Ks and four stolen bases in 28 games.
He’s coming off a 2016 season in which he played 104 games at Double-A Harrisburg, putting up a .259/.318/.354 line with 15 doubles, three triples and six home runs, and one game at Triple-A, with 31 in the majors, over which he posted a .276/.364/.379 line with three doubles, a home run and three stolen bases.
Will he be able to beat out Taylor, who’s struggled in part-time work in the majors, and Guthrie, who would give the Nationals a long-man, but barring any other surprise cuts of another reliever, thirteen pitchers (five starters/eight relievers), something Baker’s said he would rather not do.