The Washington Nationals first signed Wilmer Difo near the start of the decade, and a month before the end of it, they’re giving him what looks like one final shot. The Nationals inked Difo to a one-year, $1 million contract Sunday afternoon to avoid salary arbitration, a person with knowledge of the negotiations confirmed.
The deadline for teams to extend contracts to arbitration-eligible players is 8 p.m. Monday. The Nationals’ 40-man roster is now at 32 players, and three more players — right-handed relievers Koda Glover, Javy Guerra and Hunter Strickland — are names to watch ahead of the non-tender deadline. How the Nationals handle those pitchers will be notable because next season MLB is instituting two new rules that could affect their value: All pitchers who enter a game will have to face a minimum of three batters, and teams will be allowed to fill a 26th roster spot. It’s unclear how teams, including the Nationals, will adapt their rosters accordingly — though the new rules could favor better relievers. This prods at an essential part of the Nationals’ offseason: Build a bullpen now or later?
For Difo, this contract signals the Nationals still see the sure-gloved 27-year-old as a potential utility player for next season. The team hyped Difo’s ability to play the infield or outfield last season, calling him a “super utility” player. The Nationals initially signed Difo out of the Dominican Republic in June 2010, and they have maintained faith in him despite prolonged struggles at the plate throughout his career. His .231 batting average six weeks into this season was the primary reason the Nationals demoted him to Class AAA Fresno. The clock is ticking on the Nationals to make a final, long-term decision on Difo because in 2020 he will be out of options, according to Roster Resource, limiting his flexibility and value.
This deal, as with any signed to avert arbitration, doesn’t guarantee Difo a roster spot in 2020. Last year, the Nationals signed left-handed reliever Sammy Solís to a one-year, $850,000 deal to avoid arbitration. Solis effectively received a tryout during spring training and, when he struggled, the team released him in early March. The Nationals had a deadline before they owed Solis his full salary in 2019.