2021 Wilmer Difo All-Stars

Wilmer Difo is the poster child for organizational co-dependence.

Wilmer Difo has an All-Star personality: Boyish grin, dynamic hair, legit BP power; he runs fast, he fields well, and he’s surprisingly cut when you see him up close. His walk-up music vacillates between Chino y Nacho and the #1 hit from 1965. It’s easy to see why the Nationals liked him enough to keep him in the organization for 11 years.

Difo won the South Atlantic League MVP at 22 years old in 2014. He was the Nats’ #7 prospect in 2015, #6 in 2016, and #4 in 2017. But as the years wore on, there began to grow a disconnect between the player the Nats envisioned Difo to be, and the player he actually was.

By the beginning of the 2018 season, Difo’s rookie eligibility was long since burned. Over 2,635 plate appearances spanning seven years with the Nats, Difo owned a .272/.332/.386 slash line, despite being significantly buoyed by that one sensational season in Low-A.

The Nats, meanwhile, were coming off back-to-back playoff appearances for the first time in their team history. Expectations were high. They should have been building a bulletproof roster. Instead they were saving a seat for Difo.

The injury bug bit early when superstar second baseman Daniel Murphy began the season on the injured list. 34-year-old Howie Kendrick got the start at second on opening day, but he would tear his Achilles on May 19th – lost for the year.

Difo’s opportunity had arrived, and the Nats let him eat.

This is a narrative that makes sense to baseball folk. Give regular playing time to the organizational soldier. Worst case, it’s a bit of fan service and a good faith reward for his years of service. Best case, he pops.

Many fans in Washington felt the opportunity was long overdue. Fans, however, are prone to sentimentalism, capriciousness, and bias.

It’s the Nationals’ job to know better.

Wilmer Difo, 2015-2018

Difo had already started 77 games by the time Rizzo officially threw in the towel and traded Murphy to the Cubs on August 21. Difo appeared in 114 of their 125 games at that point. His triple slash line? Unfortunately, it was more-or-less what you’d expect given the numbers above: .240/.299/.342.

All in all, Nats’ second baseman in 2018 hit .270/.320/.417 across 669 plate appearances with 15 home runs, 79 runs, and 67 RBIs. By bWAR, they were the worst unit in the Majors with -0.6 bWAR. Difo received 53% of the playing time, but a hobbled Murphy contributed most of that production.

If second base wasn’t the reason those Nats missed the playoffs — their catching unit finished 28th with -0.5 bWAR — it certainly was  a major factor. For some reason, depth has long been the Nats’ bugaboo.

Washington Nationals Worst Unit, Non-Playoff Years

*Including pinch hitters is a bit of a cop-out, but they still produced as much negative WAR as similar last-place units, and WAS 2B were 29th that year at -0.5 bWAR as well.

Washington Nationals Worst Unit, Playoff Years

In 2014, by contrast to above, the Nats’ second-worst unit was their 24th-ranked LF unit, producing 0.3 bWAR. Left field has not been a problem of late.

Take what you will from the chart above. Does it grossly oversimplify the game at large to silo a franchise’s worst performing unit as an indicator of their overall organizational health? Yes, it does. But also, like, don’t be the worst, Nationals! How is it that they have a 30th-ranked unit almost every season! The Nationals need to take the “bear in the woods” approach to building their depth. They don’t have to be faster than a bear, just faster than somebody in your group. Don’t be last!

Lest you think this is normal, the Astros haven’t had a last-ranked unit since 2014. The Cubs not since 2015. The Mets — the Mets! — not since 2013. The Yankees just twice since 2013. The Dodgers and Cardinals haven’t had a last place unit since 2010. Sure, that’s a smattering of some of the best run organizations in the sport, but the Nats purport to be a part of that group.

Despite their middle infield depth helping greatly to tank their 2018 season, somehow, the Nationals entered 2019 with Difo as their sole backup to the oft-injured Trea Turner at shortstop. They just kept running him out there as if he’s the Ennis Del Mar to Mike Rizzo’s Jack Twist.

It nearly cost the Nats their season. It nearly cost them their title.

From the beginning of the season to their infamous 19-31 position on May 19, 2019, Difo started 33 of their 50 games. He hit .231/.301/.298. I mean, come on.

When Difo changed his walk-up music to the Righteous Brothers, his teammates thought someone was pranking him. That’s how I felt every time I’d look up and see Difo in Dave Martinez’s lineup. Meanwhile, their video scouts apparently had only this one reel:

Players aren’t perfect, but they need to be put in a position to succeed by their organization. That’s why it’s hard to even blame Difo for his repeated struggles. Dude did his best. Kept coming to the ballpark with a good spirit. Nothing but love for Difo.

Difo is the face of this All-Star team because for years, every time Difo went 0-for-4 in a game, I wanted to take Rizzo and Martinez and shake them screaming, “Again?!

Eventually, the ire does fall on the player, but it’s not their fault, really. It’s the responsibility of the organization to put their players in the best position to succeed. Even the best organizations fail at this It’s when they fail again and again that the spotlight falls on the players. The following players are flawed, oh so flawed, but I beg of you, lean into your romantic side, and love these players in spite of their faults. When they walk up to plate, hear Wilmer’s music, hear the Righteous Brothers and remember, they need your love.

 

Orlando Arcia

 

Orlando Arcia has been the captain of this team for two years running. Of the players on this list, he’s the one who really and truly should be out of opportunities.

Like Difo, Arcia’s flush with panache. But there’s a reason we don’t track panache in the box score: Panache doesn’t win baseball games (nor is it, I guess, quantifiable … but also, the first thing). Arcia moves like he’s the best player on the field. As his organization, the Brewers are probably okay with that. They might even encourage it.

He has, after all, played his biggest when the lights shined brightest. Every postseason, he fools them into believing again: He has a .295/.311/.568 line in 45 plate appearances across 13 career playoff games. As a Cubs fan, it still smarts to remember game 163 in 2018. It was, for all intents and purposes, the beginning of the end for Joe Maddon’s Cubs. And it was Arcia who brought down the hammer:

When a swaggy 22-year-old Arcia posted a .277/.324/.407 line worth 2.2 bWAR/1.4 fWAR in 2017, the Brewers probably thought they had their shortstop of the future.

But now we live in the future, and I can’t fathom why such a enterprising organization is still entertaining the idea playing him over Luis Urias. And yet, the latest reports have Urias starting the season in Triple-A and Arcia right back in the starting lineup.

Arcia is 26 years old, so theoretically he could muscle into in a prime-age version of himself, but is that guy even worth starting? Over 1,865 career plate appearances in the regular season, Arcia’s triple slash line is .244/.295/.366 with a solid 20.1 percent strikeout rate and subpar 6.6 percent walk rate. He has a .121 ISO for his career. Over five seasons (five!), playing more-or-less regularly, he’s accumulated 1.0 career fWAR. One! That’s…not enough.

The Brewers do not have the financial resources to bake much margin for error into each season. They need to hit on their roster moves or pull the plug. We’re about to enter year six of the Arcia era. His glove is fine, but defensive metrics don’t love his glovework, so what is it, exactly, that the Brewers see in him?

This season, they have a viable alternative on the roster. Kolten Wong fell into their laps to take over second base, forcing Urias — the guy they got in return for Trent Grisham, who’s slaying in San Diego — to play shortstop. Or not play at all.

Granted, Urias hasn’t hit either. He’s also only 23 years old, and in all fairness, Arcia had done more to establish himself when he was Urias’ age.

Since then, he’s been below replacement (-0.1 fWAR). That’s a pretty good indication that it’s time to replace him.

 

Mike Zunino

 

A good defensive catcher has a broader range of potential impact than any other position. Much like panache, a catcher’s true impact is difficult to quantify.

Let’s call it the Yadier Molina factor.

Molina can hit a bit, and he has a cannon, but more important than his WAR totals, he’s a galvanizing talent. We don’t need to see in numbers the value he brings as a game manager and pitcher courtesan. We know it.

Zunino might have some fraction of that ability as well. But how do we know? The Rays pitching staff has excelled in the two years he’s been by their bedside. Who am I to say he’s not the perfect Alfred to Tyler Glasnow‘s Batman? The Rays trust him. And the Rays are well-known to be one of the savviest organizations in the game. But can they be trusted?

Tampa Bay Rays
Catcher Rank
YEAR Top Receiver
bWAR MLB Rank Playoffs?
2020 Michael Perez 0.0 25th Y
2019 Mike Zunino 0.5 23rd Y
2018 Wilson Ramos 1.7 12th N
2017 Wilson Ramos 0.4 25th N
2016 Curt Casali 0.6 22nd N
2015 Rene Rivera -0.7 29th N
2014 Ryan Hanigan -1.1 30th N
2013 Jose Molina 1.4 18th Y

The Rays rarely keep a catcher for more than two seasons, and they never have a top-10 backstop. Zunino had five fewer plate appearances than Perez in 2020, but he was unequivocally the guy come playoff time. Zunino guided the Rays’ vast array of power arms to an American League pennant. At the plate, he was a caricature of himself: four home runs and eight RBIs with a .170/.196/.396 line.

On the whole, Zunino hasn’t found himself at the plate in Tampa: .161/.233/.323 over 373 plate appearances with a stunning 36.2 percent strikeout rate and also-terrible 7.0 percent walk rate. Power is the one saving grace of his offensive contributions. His power these past two seasons has actually dipped well below his career average, but even the .161 ISO he owns as a Ray is fine for a starting catcher.

This season, Zunino will share the Rays’ catching duties with his spiritual opposite: Francisco Mejia. While Zunino is all glove and game management, Mejia has a reputation for not really knowing what’s going on back there. His physical tools are immense, but there’s high bust potential. Do the Rays hope Zunino can tutor Mejia and show him the ropes? Or is this a confused organizational strategy that’s trying too hard to diversify?

Ultimately, we know the Rays aren’t going to produce a statistically potent catching tandem. Do they not know what they’re doing? Or do they know exactly what they’re doing?

With the Rays, that’s always the question.

 

Andrew Heaney

 

Andrew Heaney has been the nominal or future ace of the Angels for, like, ever. But sometimes a guy’s reputation can be elevated simply by the company he keeps. In any given year, Heaney is definitely in the running to be the Angels’ best pitcher. But he’s not an ace.

That’s a problem.

Since Heaney’s initial breakout campaign in 2015, he is 24-26 in 84 starts with a 4.35 ERA/4.28 FIP over 475 1/3 innings with 9.1 K/9 to 2.5 BB/9.

Let’s take a brute force approach to see where in a rotation Heaney belongs.

Rules:

  • teams draft starters one-at-a-time
  • draft choice made strictly by ERA from lowest-to-highest
  • draft continues until each team fills a five-man rotation
  • assume the team drafting #1 finishes with the best record
  • assume the team drafting #30 finishes with the worst record
  • #1-10 = playoff teams = first-division
  • #11-15 = contenders = first-division
  • #16-25 = non-contenders = second-division
  • #26-30 = rebuilding

ERA

In this fun little exercise, only the top 150 starters make a rotation — 173 starters qualify from 2015-20, so there will be a handful of guys sent to the bullpen. Heaney’s 4.35 ERA would make him the 104th pick of the draft, making him the 14th pick of the fourth round, aka a No. 4 starter on a first-division contender, but not a playoff team. Using 2020 records, that would put Heaney on the Reds or the Marlins, sneaking into the expanded playoffs but not likely getting a start.

Strictly speaking — which is to say, ranking by ERA — that turns him into Pablo Lopez or Sonny Gray. Practically speaking, it’s closer to Elieser Hernandez or Tyler Mahle. Would the Angels feel good with Tyler Mahle as the ace of their staff?

FIP

Same rules, but substitute FIP for ERA. In this case, Heaney goes 90th overall as the last pick of the 3rd round. So he could be considered as high as a No. 3 starter on a rebuilding team. Close to, but kinda fringy for a “mid-rotation” qualification. He would be, in 2020 terms, JT Brubaker.

He’s a first-division back-end starter. Maybe mid-rotation for a bottom-feeder. He can be in your playoff rotation, but he wouldn’t sniff the wild card game.

That begs the question: Would Heaney be the Angels wild card game starter?

They’d have to get there to know.

Volume

For his part, Heaney has struggled to stay healthy at times. He’s only made more than 20 starts once in his career. Simply by volume, he could be the fifth starter on a first-division contender. I’m sure that’s not how the Angels view him. But that’s what he is.

His best season was 2018 when he went 9-10 over 180 innings with a 4.15 ERA/3.99 FIP, good for 2.9 fWAR. That’s a good season. But right now, as Heaney approaches his age-30 season, that has to be viewed as his ceiling. If that’s the ceiling for your No. 2 starter, then you don’t have enough pitching to be a playoff team.

I don’t know how many times we have to say this before the Angels hear it.

 

Carter Kieboom

 

And thus, we return to where we began: the Washington Nationals. When we first met Carter Kieboom, it was the 2019 season and the Nats were still struggling to pivot after losing Trea Turner to a broken finger in the fourth game of the season.

The long-term thinking was that by year’s end, Kieboom could be ready. If something happened to Turner after the All-Star break, they’d have a good chance at slotting Kieboom into his place. In the short-term, Difo was a guy who’d stepped in before and at least would provide a sound defensive presence. This was a bad plan.

What actually happened: Difo was bad — though, frankly, within his career norms. And that’s the point. Like, what’d y’all expect?

The Nationals called on Kieboom.

He wasn’t ready. He stayed in the Show for 11 games, slashed .128/.209/.282 across 43 plate appearances, made four errors, posted -6 DRS, and managed to log -0.5 fWAR in a little over a week and a half.

2020 wasn’t a whole lot better for Kieboom, as the Nats tasked him with the impossible responsibility of replacing Anthony Rendon. Kieboom, still only 22 years old, showed some promise in his approach with a 13.9 percent walk rate and an acceptable-if-still-high 27.0 percent strikeout rate. Defensively he was solid, making just three errors and logging 4 DRS in his 30 starts at third base.

But he also had just one extra base hit in 122 plate appearances. His .010 ISO was the 7th-lowest such mark for anyone with at least 100 PAs going back to 2010. Here’s the list of the 10 lowest ISOs with at least 100 plate appearances:

 

Grudzielanek and Molina promptly retired following the season above. Kozma hasn’t had 100 PAs in a season since. Castro didn’t see the Majors for a year, then got 47 more plate appearances in his career. Kawasaki put together a little bit of a career as a backup, finishing with a .052 career ISO. Burriss, like Kieboom, got a World Series ring out of his power outage season. But after his second consecutive .007 ISO season, he stepped to the plate just 55 more times in his career.

There’s basically no recent precedent for a guy having a power outage season like Kieboom’s and recovering.

On the other hand, there’s no precedent for 2020.

There are only two possible futures: (1) Kieboom actualizes into the player projected as a top-25 prospect league-wide, or (2) the Nationals find a new solution for the hot corner.

The third option, of course, is that Kieboom doesn’t grow into a star, and the Nationals continue to trot him out at the hot corner year after year, even as his poor performance routinely serves as a detriment to the team. How in the world could a team as smart and successful as the Nationals let something like that happen?

When you love someone, no matter what happens, it’s always hard to say good-bye.

Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)

TC Zencka

TC Zencka contributes regularly to Pitcher List, and MLB Trade Rumors. Come say hi on Twitter.

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