When the Washington Nationals called shortstop prospect Carter Kieboom up in late April, Nats’ GM Mike Rizzo explained that it was a good chance to get the 21-year-old infielder up and get his feet wet in the majors while there was a need in the big league lineup.
An ancillary benefit, Rizzo explained, was that bringing up their top shortstop/second base prospect in the organization allowed them move Wilmer Difo back into a bench role.
“[It] strengthens a strength of ours in putting Wilmer Difo back into a more comfortable role of being that super-utility player that can play multiple positions and help us off the bench,” Rizzo said.
Kieboom struggled, however, and when he was optioned back to the Nationals’ top minor league affiliate, Difo returned to short.
Difo too struggled as an everyday shortstop in Trea Turner’s absence, with a .225/.301/.297 line, two doubles, two homers, 12 walks, and 26 Ks in 33 games and 124 plate appearances as a starter before he was optioned to Triple-A Fresno when Turner (who had a broken right index finger) came off the Injured List on Friday afternoon.
“Difo needs to play, I mean, he really does,” manager Davey Martinez explained after they’d announced the roster decisions.
“When we need him again — it’s an ability for him to continue to play — and then when we need him he’s had the at bats, and he comes up and he’s right back where he left off. For him just to sit there, everybody — I don’t think people realize how young Difo still is — we just want him to play and keep playing and like I said, when we need him again, he’s been playing, it’s not like he’s sitting there and all of a sudden you plop him back in. So that was it. He’ll be back here at some point, I know, but we just want him to go out and play every day.”
Difo, 27, hasn’t played in the minors since 2017, and it was only 10 games at Triple-A that season, but the Nats’ second-year skipper was clear that it wasn’t a punitive demotion.
“This is not a punishment for whatever,” he explained. “I also want to praise Adrían Sanchez for what he’s doing coming off the bench. I think he fits the role perfectly, and he’s worked hard. He’s coming off the bench, he’s putting good at bats together, and here’s a guy who can play all four infield positions, could play corner outfield if need be, and also he’s been working on catching too, so he could be a third catcher.”
In a small sample size of nine plate appearances as a sub this season, Sanchez is 3 for 9 so far in 2019. He’ll stay on the bench in the majors now that Turner is back and will likely be a regular, every day part of the lineup as long as he stays healthy.
“He’s been working diligently for a while now,” Martinez said of the rehab work Turner has done since he broke the finger four games into the season on April 2nd.
“And he’s done a lot of stuff to prepare himself to get ready, and we watched him play the last couple games and he looked like he was ready. His at bats looked like he was on time, which was kind of nice, his defense was really good, so he said he was ready, so he’s in there.”
Turner told reporters he was just happy that he could come back and contribute.
“Help out, do the same things I did when I was healthy and before. So, contribute any way, running the bases, defense, whatever it is, I’m going to try to do that,” he said.
He went 2 for 5 in his return to the lineup, though he also committed a throwing error in what ended up a 14-6 loss to the Chicago Cubs.
“He looked really good,” Martinez said after the game. “I mean, he got a couple hits, but he played well.”