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Wilmer Difo can save Washington Nationals millions with a strong 2018 season...

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In limited playing time last season, Wilmer Difo impressed the Washington Nationals. Could he fill a starting role if Daniel Murphy departs for free agency next offseason?

MLB: Washington Nationals at Houston Astros Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

The name Wilmer Difo isn’t a well-recognized one around Major League Baseball, as is the case with most 25-year-old backup infielders. In the nation’s capital, however, he’s the face of a wave of young position players breaking into the major leagues for the Washington Nationals.

Last season, Difo filled in for the injured Trea Turner at shortstop for much of July and August. When Turner was healthy, the switch-hitting Dominican also appeared at second base, third base and in the outfield.

In all, Difo played 124 games in which he slashed .271/.319/.370 with 19 extra-base hits, 10 stolen bases and 24 walks. Other young fill-ins such as Brian Goodwin and Adrian Sanchez made positive impressions, but none proved to be as valuable as Difo.

“He brings a lot to the table as far as bringing Davey [Martinez] versatility and speed, switch hit, play great defense at shortstop and second base, can play third base, and we can throw him in the outfield,” GM Mike Rizzo said at the Winter Meetings in December. “He showed last year that he can play for extended periods of time and he’s a really good young player that probably deserves to have more time.”

As the roster currently stands, Difo projects to spend most of the season in a reserve role. He could run into some playing time early if second baseman Daniel Murphy’s offseason knee surgery prevents him from getting healthy in time for Opening Day, but there simply isn’t another starting spot available to him once the Silver Slugger returns.

Yet, Difo may not need to wait too long for his chance to play every day. Murphy is embarking on the final season of the three-year deal he signed with Washington back in January of 2016. If Difo can prove to the front office that last season’s success was no fluke, he could find himself listed as the starting second baseman on the Nats’ 2019 Opening Day roster.

Regular playing time provided Difo the luxury of developing a level of comfort at the plate, and it showed in his numbers. From July 2 to Aug. 30, Difo played in all but three games for the Nats. He hit .345 with four home runs, seven stolen bases, 15 walks and an OPS of .877 over 44 games.

Extrapolated over a season in which he plays 150 games, Difo’s numbers come out to about 15 home runs, 26 stolen bases and 55 walks. All of those totals, other than homers, would’ve ranked among the top-10 second basemen in the league last season.

None of that even begins to factor in Difo’s defensive wizardry. He finished 15th in the majors with 14 Defensive Runs Saved last season despite 12 of those players that ranked above him playing at least 320 more innings than him. If he’d played a full season (about 1,300 innings), his extrapolated DRS comes out to 38, six more than league-leader Andrelton Simmons.

Now, these aren’t huge sample sizes and it’d be incredibly difficult for Difo to sustain this kind of play over the course of a full season. However, his impressive play in limited time does bode well for the future.

MLB: Washington Nationals at Houston Astros Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Skeptics believe the departures of Murphy and Bryce Harper next offseason could cripple this team’s ability to compete for years, but Difo could play a major role in preventing that from happening. In addition, if the Nats don’t need to spend money on a replacement second baseman, they could direct more salary toward expenses like an Anthony Rendon extension or free agent outfielder.

With Goodwin and top prospect Victor Robles breaking onto the MLB scene in big ways as well, the Nationals have a young core that could fill holes in the team’s lineup for years to come. Right now, Difo stands out as the most impressive of the group. The key to his future as an everyday player rests on his success in 2018.

“I think the key in general is just playing every day,” Difo said. “It just gave me a boost of confidence. I felt a lot more loose out there, more relaxed, and I think that was the biggest difference. I kept working the same, working hard, and trying to stay focused, but just the fact that I was playing every day made me feel more relaxed and I think that was the biggest key, the biggest difference for me.”