Grading the Washington Nationals: Position players part deux

Photo by Marlene Koenig for TalkNats

The rest of the Nats’ roster of position players has to face my utterly unscientific grading rubric, too. There’s no escape, not for the likes of Adam Lind and not for the likes of Rafael Bautista.

I didn’t quite get to everyone last time, so let’s dive right in where I left off.

Wilmer Difo

This was a big season for Wilmer Difo, the light-hitting utilityman with the hole in his glove who…well, it’s fair to say that Difo earned a meaningful reevaluation this year with the work he did filling in for injured shortstop Trea Turner. Difo’s rocky tenure with the Nats seemed to reach its nadir when Turner dropped a two-out bunt with Difo, the winning run, leading off third base against the Texas Rangers at Nationals Park on June 10 — and Difo froze up. Instead of running home into the arms of his ecstatic teammates, Difo was caught in a rundown and tagged out due to his hesitation. He soon found himself back in Syracuse with the Triple-A Chiefs, only to return to the Nats due to a day-to-day injury to Michael A. Taylor. A near-disastrous center field debut after his return did little to reinvigorate goodwill.

But Difo was determined to turn things around, and manager Dusty Baker was left with little choice but to let him try after Turner landed on the disabled list toward the end of the month and his backup Stephen Drew followed soon after. Baker was rewarded, though. From July 1 through Aug. 30, Difo hit a blistering .345/.877 across 193 plate appearances, a shocking and very welcome turnaround from a player who had never shown much with the bat before and had hit an anemic .191/.513 in 102 major league plate appearances in 2017 to that point. Removed from an everyday role with the return of Turner, Difo abruptly went back to not hitting, scratching out a .193/.452 line in 70 more plate appearances before the season ended. He received just one postseason at-bat and went hitless.

So, Difo remains something of an enigma. The tools are there, and he put them together in a spectacular way with Turner and Drew incapacitated. But as a part-time player, he was bad enough this year that his final batting line on the season came out as a Ben Revere-esque .271/.690, although Baseball-Reference liked him to the tune of 1.9 WAR. The Nats do not have a place for Difo to play every day in 2018. They will hope that in addition to being a capable fill-in piece up the middle in case of injuries to Turner or Daniel Murphy, he can contribute more off the bench as well. Of course, it’s also possible a rival general manager will notice the splits between Difo’s performance playing every day and his performance in a bench role and take an interest in bringing him to town for his age-26 season.

Grade for Wilmer Difo: B

Adam Lind

Expectations were high last winter for the Nats to bring in a left-handed first baseman, someone who could share time with Ryan Zimmerman, who had labored through forgettable 2014–16 seasons. They got their man in Adam Lind, who turned out to be a far better part-time player than anyone could have possibly foreseen. While not exactly a defensive specialist (Baseball-Reference pegs him for -0.9 defensive WAR on the season), Lind gamely took to left field when needed to fill in for the Nats’ plethora of outfield injuries while also spelling Zimmerman, who remained healthy all season and turned in an MVP-caliber year with the bat, at first base.

Lind’s batting line of .303/.875 with 14 home runs over 301 plate appearances is impressive enough. What really blows you away is, looking under the hood a bit, his ridiculous .356/1.040 line in his 48 pinch hit appearances during the regular season. (For good measure, he keyed a ferocious eighth-inning rally that led to a Nats victory in Game 2 of the National League Division Series, although he also hit into a double play in a pivotal spot as a pinch-hitter in Game 5.) That pretty much qualifies Lind as a pinch-hitting god. No one is supposed to be that good at pinch-hitting.

The Nats signed Lind on an incentive-laden deal with a $5 million mutual option for 2018. Although Lind wasn’t an everyday player this year and the free agent market looks to be fairly loaded with power-hitting first basemen and designated hitters, he may well opt to decline his end of the option and try his luck in free agency. But Lind would fit the Nats next year just as well as he did this year. They will surely try to bring him back and hope to bottle lightning for another season.

Grade for Adam Lind: A+

Grant Green

Grant Green is a player who appeared for the Washington Nationals in the 2017 season.

There just isn’t that much else to say. Green started exactly one game (at second base), went hitless, and didn’t particularly impress on defense. He’ll maybe be best remembered as a Nat for prompting the question, “Hey, who’s that guy?” when a photo or clip of the walkoff celebration surrounding one of Bryce Harper’s umpteen pantsings of the Philadelphia Phillies — you know, this one, the one that took place during Green’s very short stint as a roster-filler in mid-April 2017 — shows up in a career retrospective. Maybe the most incredible thing about Green’s time in a Nats uniform is that he was somehow worth -0.2 rWAR despite only appearing in two games and getting just three plate appearances. Good job, guy.

Grade for Grant Green: incomplete

Adrian Sanchez

The best story of any Nats player in 2017 belongs to Adrian Sanchez. A 26-year-old utility infielder from Venezuela (although much of his family is from neighboring Colombia), Sanchez spent a decade as one of dozens of obscure fringe prospects and organizational filler pieces in the Nats’ minor league system. And then Trea Turner got hurt, and Sanchez got the call. He was intended only to fill in a hole on the roster, playing the role of Wilmer Difo while Wilmer Difo played the role of Stephen Drew while Stephen Drew played the role of Trea Turner. But then Drew got hurt too, and Sanchez started to get some actual playing time as the primary backup to both Difo and Anthony Rendon, as well as Daniel Murphy prior to the acquisition of Howie Kendrick later that month.

At times, Sanchez looked like a minor-leaguer completely lost against major league pitching, which wasn’t surprising. What was surprising was that Sanchez actually turned in a number of very good games, turning in some key hits as well as key plays at third base, his best position. He ended the season with a competent .268/.654 batting line — not the sort of numbers that makes anyone sit up and say he should be playing every day, but a line that most wouldn’t quibble with from a backup infielder, much less an emergency minor league call-up pressed into playing time for lack of any other options. (Baseball-Reference, indeed, considers him nearly the definition of a replacement player, with a 0.1 WAR.)

And hey: He made it.

Grade for Adrian Sanchez: B

Stephen Drew

This wasn’t the best year for Stephen Drew, who joined his friend Chris Heisey in re-upping with the Nats on a one-year deal after serving in a part-time role in 2016. Drew could simply not stay off the disabled list and ended up appearing in just 46 games this year, scratching out a .253/.660 line that represented a considerable drop from his 2016 production over only 106 plate appearances. His defense at shortstop deteriorated as well in his age-34 season. Baseball-Reference considers him a replacement-level player in 2017, worth -0.1 WAR. While reactivated from the disabled list after a painful-sounding abdominal injury in the last days of the season, he did not appear in a game after July 25.

Interestingly enough, Drew followed the opposite trajectory of fellow fill-in shortstop Wilmer Difo, in that he was hitting .321/.824 as a part-time player in limited action heading into the month of July and then cratered, somehow recording just four hits in the starts he made at shortstop following Trea Turner’s injury. While Difo rose to the challenge of playing regularly, Drew appeared overexposed up until his season-ending injury. He could catch on somewhere as a bench player, but injuries and uneven performance mean he might have to settle for a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training.

Grade for Stephen Drew: C-

Andrew Stevenson

This could have been a big year for Andrew Stevenson, and surely, he’ll still remember it for all his life as the year he debuted in the majors. Unfortunately, aside from one spectacular diving catch to secure a win against the Miami Marlins, Stevenson didn’t achieve much else this year. Seeing considerably more time on the roster than anyone expected due to injuries to the entire starting outfield and several key reserves as well, Stevenson tallied a batting line of .158/.443 across 37 games and 66 plate appearances. Despite his vaunted speed, he stole just one base in one attempt. He really wasn’t on base enough to make a whole lot of tries.

Stevenson turned 23 during this season, so he’s hardly a failed prospect at this point, and the annals of baseball history are rich with players who didn’t show much in their first major league seasons but ended up developing into consistent role players or even better. But he’ll surely have to fight among a crowded outfield picture for a bench spot on the Nats’ Opening Day roster in 2018, and he didn’t do much to invigorate his stock in trade ahead of an off-season in which general manager Mike Rizzo will likely seek to deal from his surfeit of young outfielders to acquire pitching and/or catching talent.

Grade for Andrew Stevenson: D

Rafael Bautista

“Who is Rafael Bautista!?” That was the question more than a few fans were asking when the fleet-footed 24-year-old was called up following Adam Eaton’s season-ending injury. Not among the Nats’ upper echelon of prospects, Bautista nonetheless established himself in the high minors as a slap hitter with speed to burn and an excellent outfield glove. In very limited action in the major leagues this year, he reinforced that perception. With too many strikeouts to really count as a “contact hitter” and not nearly enough power to qualify as an “all-or-nothing hitter”, Bautista is decidedly a fringe prospect as a major league-caliber hitter. He appeared in just 17 games, usually as a defensive replacement, and got 27 plate appearances this season, hitting an inconsequential .160/.382. Combined with iffy stats at Triple-A Syracuse around a lengthy stint on the disabled list, though, it’s probably enough of a sample size to say Bautista isn’t likely to figure prominently into the Nats’ long-term planning.

Grade for Rafael Bautista: F+

Victor Robles

There was shock and excitement in Natsworld when the team unexpectedly called up top prospect Victor Robles to join its outfield mix in September. A five-tool player who had never played above the Double-A level, the 20-year-old Robles is officially the player with the latest date of birth to appear in the major leagues, a record that will likely stand until some time next season. Unsurprisingly, he’s a little raw, committing a couple baserunning mistakes and appearing overeager at times to offer at pitches that turned out to be true major league off-speed offerings intended to fool reckless hitters.

All that said, Robles’ tools are loud, as evidenced by the two triples (and one ruled a double after he overslid third base and was tagged out before he got his hand back to the bag) he hit in just 27 regular-season plate appearances with the Nats. He figures to be one of the fastest runners in the major leagues, setting up a potentially very exciting future of him pairing with speed demon Trea Turner in the lineup, with young roadrunners Wilmer Difo and Andrew Stevenson figuring as potential bench pieces and backups. And he showed enough for the Nats to put him on the NLDS roster, although he saw little action, striking out in a pinch-hit appearance that was his sole trip to the plate. The Nats could elect to start him out in the minor leagues for service time reasons in 2018, but he’ll soon be up for the long haul, looking to improve on this year’s .250/.766 batting line.

Grade for Victor Robles: B

Alejandro De Aza

One in a parade of veteran right-handed corner outfielders to appear for the Nats this season, Alejandro De Aza arguably played his way toward the end of September into a roster spot in the playoffs, only to see management go with green-as-grass Victor Robles and barely-rehabilitated Brian Goodwin instead (neither was a factor in the NLDS outcome). Though frequently denigrated by fans — and, lest we sugarcoat overmuch, he did end the year with a .194/.546 batting line across 70 plate appearances, which isn’t even in the realm of good — De Aza did seem to have a knack for the clutch play, memorably robbing former Nat Tyler Moore of a home run to end a game at Marlins Park and even more memorably ripping a single to walk off the Pittsburgh Pirates in a topsy-turvy game late in the season. Still, it’s doubtful he showed enough to get a major league deal this winter, so it’s likely he’ll again compete for a roster spot somewhere during spring training.

Grade for Alejandro De Aza: C

Pedro Severino

In a year filled with lousy Nats catching, Pedro Severino might have been the lousiest. Appearing in his third major league season, Severino (who turned 24 in July) struggled mightily across just 17 games and 31 plate appearances, hitting an awful .172/.433. Injured for part of the season, Severino’s results at Triple-A were poor enough that upon returning to the lineup, he found himself sharing time with breakout prospect Spencer Kieboom, who had been promoted to fill his spot on the Syracuse Chiefs’ roster but played well enough to keep it even after the more highly touted Severino returned. He slid in the prospect rankings, falling behind compatriot Raudy Read among Nats catchers. And his defense was unimpressive as well, with eight passed balls in 57 games started for the Chiefs and one more in just five games started for the Nats.

Severino has been talked about at times as the Nats’ catcher of the future. Now, it appears doubtful that he’s even ready to be considered the Nats’ backup catcher of the future, with Read and perhaps Kieboom (who could be added back to the 40-man roster this winter after losing his spot during spring training) leapfrogging him on the organizational depth chart even if Mike Rizzo doesn’t swing a trade or trawl the free agent market to find a new catcher to pair with Matt Wieters during the off-season. It’s a disappointing downturn for a player who was once a young and promising prospect and now figures to be neither next year.

Grade for Pedro Severino: F-

Raudy Read

Well, let’s take a look at the Nats’ other 24-year-old Dominican catching prospect. (To be fair, Raudy Read doesn’t turn 24 until Oct. 29, but close enough.) Read was sort of considered the opposite of Severino in the minor leagues; while Severino was regarded as a defensive specialist, a reputation tarnished by his poor performance behind the plate this season, Read has been considered something of a butcher with the mitt whose value lies in his above-average bat. Indeed, Read impressed with 17 home runs for the Double-A Harrisburg Senators before getting a cup of coffee this September. Appearing in just eight major league games with just 11 plate appearances, Read hit .273/.545. The sample size is really too small to draw any conclusions. Read’s poor defensive reputation did rear its head, though, with a passed ball in his major league debut that hit off the umpire’s mask and another miss in a later game generously (to the catcher) scored as a wild pitch. He didn’t get much of a chance to show off his cannon arm, either, with just one steal attempt (successful) against him. He’ll likely start 2018 back in the minors, where the Nats would undoubtedly like to see some improvement on defense to justify bringing his big bat back to the majors for a more extensive look.

Grade for Raudy Read: incomplete

Agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments.

And I was originally planning to do one of these grading the coaches, but since it has been announced their contracts won’t be automatically renewed and manager Dusty Baker will not return in 2018, I’ll refrain. No use beating a dead horse. Unless that horse is Grant Green, I suppose.

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