Trading Daniel Murphy, Washington Nationals’ GM Mike Rizzo explained after the August 21, 2018 deal that sent the veteran infielder to the Chicago Cubs, gave the Nationals payroll flexibility in 2019 and a chance to look at players in the organization that could potentially play a role in the future.
The Murphy trade was one of two that day, along with the deal that sent Matt Adams to St. Louis, and those trades followed moves that sent Brandon Kintzler to the Cubs and Shawn Kelley to the Oakland A’s.
“These moves allow us financial flexibility going into the 2019 season,” Rizzo explained, “... to allocate our resources in that direction. It also allows some of our young players to get valuable major league experience, and also allows us to get the good young prospect players that we’ll need in the minor leagues for the future.”
The Murphy trade, in particular, provided Wilmer Difo with an opportunity to play second base on a regular basis as he had while Murphy recovered from offseason surgery which, somewhat unexpectedly, kept the veteran out of the lineup until June 12th.
There was also the season-ending injury to Howie Kendrick in mid-May. He played 33 of his 40 games at second while healthy and likely would have seen time there as well while the Nationals waited for Murphy to return.
“Moving forward,” Nationals’ skipper Davey Martinez said in the wake of the Muprhy trade, “Difo gets a chance to play some second base, and as you know, Difo has got a lot of energy, so I’m excited about that.”
“At the beginning [Difo] played quite a bit and did well. So you know, I want him to just go play baseball like he’s capable of playing and bring that energy every day.”
Difo was 45 for 185 (.243/.312/.357) with six doubles, three triples, and three home runs in 62 games and 207 plate appearances before Murphy returned to the lineup, and the 26-year-old continued play second as Murphy got his legs under him playing first base.
In 53 games, 28 starts, and 133 PAs between Murphy’s return to the lineup and his trade to the Cubs, Difo put up a .236/.278/.341 line with four doubles, three triples, and a home run.
The chance to play every day again following the trade, Difo told reporters, was a welcome opportunity.
“Obviously it seems like that door is open for me to take the opportunity and hopefully run with it,” he said, “and play as best as I can, but at the same time, I’m happy about that, but at the same time I’m sad a little bit and sad that one of our good teammates is leaving. He was a great teammate, I got along with him great, so a little sad about that.”
Asked what he wanted to show the Nationals down the stretch, Difo said, “I don’t think I have to show them anything.”
“They know what I can do. Just stay with my same work ethic, keep working hard, doing my job going out there every day and performing and helping the team win any way I can, but more than anything just keep working hard and staying positive.”
His manager, however, stressed to Difo that it was a big opportunity.
“Yesterday I called him in and I said, ‘Hey, you’ve got an opportunity now to play every day, just go out there and be yourself,’ Martinez recalled.
“He plays with a lot energy and he brings that little bit of that fire.
“Just go out there and be you. I said, ‘The only thing I ask is that you don’t miss any signs, just make sure you get the signs,’ and he was good. Yesterday you saw him again, he hit a home run, and he acted like he hit 700, so that’s Difo.”
As Martinez explained it down the stretch, Difo brought a different dynamic to the Nats’ lineup.
“You see, he gets on base, makes unbelievable plays at second base. When he’s really good he’s all over the place,” Martinez said. “And it makes it fun. He’s very talkative in the dugout, he always has been. We love his energy.
“Difo can steal bases, he can bunt, or we can hit-and-run with him, we can do all kinds of things with him so it makes it nice.”
Martinez was clear that he knew the Nationals parting ways with Murphy did subtract a significant bat from their lineup.
“Granted, you take a guy like Murphy that can hit, you want him to hit,” he said. “This is just another dimension that Difo brings to the game, and it’s fun. Like yesterday I caught myself giving a whole lot more signs than I have in the past and it was a lot of fun.”
The energy Difo brings to the lineup, he said, is something you can’t get enough of though.
“I think in this day and age there’s really never enough of those guys. Like I said, as long as they play the game and they know what their abilities are and what they can do, just go out there and have fun and play the game.”
A few weeks later, Martinez talked again about what Difo brought to the lineup.
“His offense has been — he’s really staying on the ball and using the middle of the field,” Martinez said.
“He’s driving the ball to left-center field, which is really nice to see. That’s the key for him not trying to do too much. Sometimes, as you see, if he hits a home run, he tends to get big for a little bit. We try to keep him back in the middle of the field. I think Difo’s going to be a really, really, really exciting player. He’s just got to remember to focus on the little things and stay focused and the complete game and he’s going to take off. He really is.
“He’s exciting to watch. I love when he plays cause he’s got a lot of energy.
“The last three weeks he’s done unbelievable, he really has, and he plays with a lot of heart, and like I said, a lot energy.”
Difo was also, Martinez said, open to advice and able to apply it when it was offered.
“He wants to learn, he really does, and he prides himself on — he wants to play every day. He’s kind of like [Juan] Soto in that way, he loves playing the game of baseball.”
At that point in the season, however, Martinez said, and at that point in his career, Difo still needed to stay focused on the details.
“We talk about it every day. When something happens I’ll approach him the next day and talk about it and get him to understand that these are things that we need to keep working on. It’s not just about getting hits and hitting home runs, it’s about the little things. Getting the extra base, going first-to-third, knowing to cover first base on a bunt. All the time. Be aware all the time. It’s something that we talked about, I talked about being in and out of the circle as we do in the outfield. When you’re in the circle you’re engaged, when you’re out of the circle in-between pitches, go ahead and do whatever Difo does. But be engaged.”
In 33 games (26 starts) after Murphy was dealt, Difo struggled, going 20 for 100 in the last month-plus of the 2018 campaign (.200/.296/.350) with four doubles, a triple, and three home runs over that stretch to finish up at .230/.298/.350 with 14 doubles, seven triples, seven home runs, 39 walks, and 82 Ks in 456 PAs, over which he was worth 71 wRC+ and 0.4 fWAR.
Defensively, Difo finished the season with +2 Defensive Runs Saved, good for 9th overall in the National League in 2018. His 2.8 Ultimate Zone Rating was 5th-highest among National League second basemen. His .992 Fielding Percentage would have been the 2nd-highest in the NL if he had enough innings at second base to qualify for the leaderboard, and his three errors were the fewest among all NL infielders with at least 700 innings played at second in 2018.
Given what they saw from Difo this season, the Nationals will likely be back in the market for an everyday second baseman this winter, unless they decide that the top infield prospect in the organization, Carter Kieboom, is ready to assume everyday duties at either second base or at short in 2019 (though playing Trea Turner at second in that scenario seems unlikely).
Will Difo return to a utility role, backing up at second, short, and third base behind Anthony Rendon, Turner, and a new second baseman, respectively?
Is that where Difo belongs based on what you have seen from him so far in the majors?