Tuesday afternoon, the Washington Nationals traded All-Star second baseman Daniel Murphy to the Chicago Cubs. And while the transaction has some of the mindset that it’s the end of an era in the nation’s capital, the move gives some players the opportunity to showcase themselves to be a part of the Nats’ future. One of those players is Wilmer Difo — who, with Murphy out of the picture, has the chance to become the team’s permanent second baseman going forward.
By trading Murphy, the Nats are ridding themselves of their most productive and reliable hitter over the last two and a half years. He hit .300 or better in each of his three seasons with them, was a two-time All-Star, and a big reason why the Nats won the National League East in his first two years with the team. But with his free agency looming and Bryce Harper also hitting the open market after the 2018 season, chances are the Nationals would’ve prioritized signing Harper over Murphy; they just pulled the plug on Murphy five weeks before the season ended.
Difo began this season as the Nats starting second baseman with Murphy on the disabled list due to a knee injury. And despite the golden opportunity to prove himself, Difo was underwhelming when Murphy was on the DL and hasn’t shown many signs of improvement. Going into Wednesday night, he was hitting just .240 and owned a .299 on-base percentage to go along with four home runs and 30 RBIs in 308 at-bats. Last year, Difo hit .271 and owned a .319 on-base percentage to go along with five home runs and 21 RBIs in 332 at-bats.
Difo is a contact hitter. He doesn’t hit for power, isn’t going to hit in the cleanup hole, and is a switch-hitter. An area where Difo needs to improve in is his plate discipline. He doesn’t draw many walks and can be impatient with his approach. Simultaneously, he has recorded a team-high seven triples this season and is smooth in the field. Another intriguing attribute to Difo’s game is his versatility. In his career, Difo has played both second and third base as well as shortstop. Manager Dave Martinez can move Difo all around the infield — which comes in handy when injuries pile up.
The infield depth is thin, especially at areas of need, within the Nats organization. While they called up Adrian Sanchez from Triple-A Tuesday afternoon and have Carter Kieboom and Luis Garcia in the minors, Sanchez is the only one who has played a game at the major-league level, and Kieboom has not played an inning at second in his time in the Washington organization. And outside of outfielder Victor Robles, the Nats farm system is, for the most part, composed of pitchers — which could lead general manager Mike Rizzo to look to the outside for a second baseman this offseason.
With DJ LeMahieu, Brian Dozier, Jed Lowrie, and Ian Kinsler (not to mention Murphy) headlining the second base free agent class, management could easily turn to free agency to find their permanent, or temporary, replacement for Murphy. And based on their lack of organizational depth at second base, the Nats may, in fact, pursue such a player in free agency. But one thing that could stop the Nationals from going that route is if Difo comes into his own and proves he belongs.
The Nats likely aren’t going to the playoffs. At 64-63, their chances of making a run at the playoffs are slim, though not impossible. They’re going to field a lot of their younger players and ones who have something to prove down the stretch, and Difo will be a focal point of those experiments. He has played on a number of occasions for the team in the past, but never on a consistent basis, or for a period of time where he was the starter no matter who came back from injury. Now, there’s no one to take his place when they return; he’s pretty much the guy at second for the next 35 games.
People are going to compare Difo and/or whoever the Nationals play at second base in the near-future to Murphy; it’s inevitable. But comparing Difo, or anyone else, to Murphy isn’t fair. In fact, Difo is nothing like Murphy. Difo usually hits near the top or bottom of the order and is steady in the field. On the other hand, Murphy has hit for a higher average in years past, is a mediocre fielder, and, more often than not, hits in the middle of the order.
Difo doesn’t have to be Murphy at the plate, or Jose Altuve in the field, but he does have to play well to convince management that he can start at second beyond this season. While a challenge, it’s an opportunity the 26-year-old has never been given in the past; now, he has the chance to be the long-term starter.