The Nationals optioned 19-year-old phenom Bryce Harper to Class AAA Syracuse, ending his longshot pursuit to make the opening day roster.
Harper will play mostly center field at Syracuse, with some right mixed in, and the Nationals see him as a center fielder when he reaches the majors this season. The position represents a shift for the Nationals, who have been trying to solve a long-standing center field issue.
“I didn’t see anything that told me he couldn’t do it,” Manager Davey Johnson said Sunday of Harper playing center field.
“I know Jayson [Werth] is more comfortable in right field. I think he can handle [center], but I know that would beat him up more, and I want his bat more than I want his defense... I don't want him beat up by playing center field on an everyday basis while a rookie's getting his feet wet [in right].”
Harper, who missed six games recently with a strained left calf, finished the 2011 season in Class AA Harrisburg. General Manager Mike Rizzo, who made his front-office bones in player development, has said he prefers every player to experience every level of the minor leagues. Harper, even with his prodigious talents, will take that same path.
“He’s a special player. He needs to go down there and do what he's doing,” Johnson said. “He doesn’t need to change nothing for me. He just needs to go play.
"I said … last year that he’d get some quality at-bats when he’s 19,” Johnson added. “I still believe that."
Harper got off to a hot start this spring but cooled recently, including a four-strikeout game today in a Grapefruit League game against the Tigers.
“It sucks,” said Harper, "but I've got to go down there [to Syracuse] and work hard and try to get up here as quick as I can... I just want to go down there and... get on a streak and be called up and hopefully be a game changer for the Nationals.”
More to come.