Washington Nationals: Stephen Drew’s return creates roster questions

WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 08: Stephen Drew
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 08: Stephen Drew /

As Stephen Drew returns, will the Washington Nationals leave off the popular Wilmer Difo off the playoff roster? They might. Here’s why.

The playoff-bound Washington Nationals find themselves with another dilemma. As Stephen Drew prepares to return from months of injury, will he push the popular Wilmer Difo off the postseason roster?

Drew has taken part in sim games this week and hopes to return for the final two regular season series, versus the Philadelphia Phillies and Pittsburgh Pirates. If he gets his batting timing down, the grizzled veteran gives the Nats playoff bench instant depth on both sides of the ball.

But, his return means another player does not. Enter Difo, the defender and hitter who is a close match.

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When Difo starts, he is tremendous. Aside from his solid infield speed and defense, his slash line of .288/.331/.406 would earn regular playing time on most teams. The bench numbers tell a different tale. When called upon by Dusty Baker to fill in, the slash line crashes through the floor at .184/.262/.184. Ouch.

Since Trea Turner’s return, Difo’s September numbers are terrible, slashing .186/205/.209 with awful base running mistakes thrown in. Whether a full season has tired him out, or this is an ill-timed slump, Drew’s return threatens Difo’s October plans.

Baker—a manager who loves his vets—may leave Difo off the roster and take the proven hand with Drew.

Before an abdominal strained landed him on the 60-day disabled list, Drew slashed .253/.302/.358 for an OPS of .660. Able to play second, third and short, his defense is better than Daniel Murphy’s and could replace Turner or Rendon if they need to double-switch. (Yes, those are not the hitters likely to get yanked.)

Drew has four years of playoff experience including a successful World Series run with the 2013 Boston Red Sox. Difo struck out to end Game 5 of last year’s National League Divisional Series versus the Los Angeles Dodgers. To be fair, Drew went 0-for-4 in that same series.

Getting Drew prepped in the last week tells you this be not about raising his off-season free agent profile. If able, he is playing October baseball. Bryce Harper’s return with Drew deepens an already powerful bench.

But, it does little to bolster Difo’s case. The Nats carry outfield depth with Howie Kendrick and possibly Victor Robles. Because Difo’s outfield defense equals a soggy paper towel, there is no advantage keeping him there.

Drew’s return is a good sign. The key is how he feels after playing and hitting in real games. If so, he shortens the bench by one.

For Difo, the issue is long-term. Washington will need his ability to be a utility player next year. If he continues to struggle with irregular playing time, will the Nats stand pat or send him down to Syracuse to get at-bats?

Next: Turner an historical dynamic threat

You know what the preferred answer is. It is Difo’s job to work through it.