In his return from a strained left calf, Bryce Harper will play center field tonight for the first time this spring. Manager Davey Johnson wants to evaluate Harper, who played 20 games in center last year at Class A Hagerstown, in case Rick Ankiel remains sidelined longer than expected with a tight hamstring, and because he believes Harper possesses the athleticism to play the position.
“He runs good. He’s 19. He’s a gifted athlete,” Johnson said. “As far as I’m concerned, anybody that can throw and run like he can should have experience at all the outfield positions.”
Johnson had planned to Harper in center field before Harper hurt his left calf last Thursday. Johnson said he could envision Harper playing center field this season at the major league level, and if he didn’t, he wouldn’t play him there tonight.
The Nationals are expected to begin the season with Ankiel or Bernadina in center field and Jayson Werth in right field. But Johnson is trying shelve any expectations in favor of any open mind. He wants to consider all of his of options and watch how they play out on the field. And, in his mind, those options include Harper, all 6-foot, 3 inches and 225 pounds of him, in center field.
“It still goes back to what the needs of this ball club are,” Johnson said. “It’s not about Bryce Harper, where he needs to play. It’s about the team. Basically, the center field position, I’m looking at other options.
“I’m still looking at the best fit for this team. He’s still a part of that. Again, you guys are trying to draw conclusions. I certainly don’t have my 25 [players] picked. I talk to a lot of my coaches, nobody is really locked with a solid 25. Is it okay if I just play a guy in center field and give him three at-bats and let him relax and play the game? We’ve got a ways to go yet.”
Harper had originally been listed as the right fielder in tonight’s lineup. But when Jayson Werth decided he preferred receiving multiple at-bats in a minor league game back in Viera, a spot opened up for Harper to play center.
Johnson has received conflicting reports on Ankiel’s status. From speaking with Ankiel, Johnson expects him to return to game action Friday against the Yankees in Tampa. But Nationals trainers have been more conservative. Today, Ankiel took batting practice during the morning workout for players who did not travel.
Johnson made the point that he has played almost all of his outfielders at all three spots this spring training. He wants to let different combinations play together so they become comfortable with one another, mentioning the importance of each outfielder knowing the other’s range and recognizing their voices.
If Harper does not begin the year in the majors, which is highly likely, then Werth could start the season in right field and move to center. That is another reason Johnson wants to watch Harper in center. It is possible, he figures, the Nationals would be better off with Harper in center and Werth in right.
“When you move a player,” Johnson said, “are you weakening two positions rather than one?”
Harper has played all three outfield positions in the minor leagues, predominantly right. He is still new to the outfield, having grown up as a catcher. He does not profile as a long-term answer in center, mainly because of his size — at 19, with size 15 spikes, he could still be growing. But when Johnson watches him play, he sees ballplayer not confined to one position.
“Just because he’s got a very strong arm,” Johnson said, “doesn’t mean I have to play him in right field.”