Thomas Boswell
Thomas Boswell
Columnist

Bryce Harper center field experiment could benefit Nationals in many ways

Video: The Washington Post's Jason Reid, LaVar Arrington, Dan Steinberg and Jonathan Forsythe discuss Bryce Harper's move to center field and what it means for the Nationals.

Bryce Harper is going to Class AAA for a while. Doesn’t matter. He needs more polish and less spotlight. He’ll be back. What matters, what may even change the launch of Harper’s career and the shape of the Nationals’ immediate future is the other reason — the overlooked reason — why he’s going to Syracuse. The Nats want Harper to become a center fielder.

If the experiment works, the Nationals will, maybe by the middle of this year, fill the team’s biggest void — and fill it internally at no cost in trade. That $75 million the Nats have targeted for a free agent center fielder next offseason could be used to improve some other position.

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Watch videos from the Nationals at Spring Training.

Watch videos from the Nationals at Spring Training.

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Just as important, if Harper can play center adequately, then he instantly becomes a much more valuable player. Whatever Harper’s normal offensive stats ultimately prove to be, they’ll carry more weight in center field, where power and run production are harder to find than at corner outfield spots. In the future, the Nats could build a team with three power bats in their outfield.

Can it work? It sure has in the past.

After the 1995 season, Davey Johnson took over the Orioles, for whom Brady Anderson, 32, had started 85 percent of his games in left field the previous four years. Johnson thought he’d spotted something — a hidden center fielder. Anderson was a body-builder with speed, but he seldom got his best jumps in left field. Reading the ball off the bat is easier in center.

So the Orioles traded lame-hitting center fielder Curtis Goodwin for southpaw David Wells and made Anderson a 100 percent center fielder. How’d it work out?

“Brady hit 50 homers the first year,” said Johnson dryly on Tuesday. Anderson also became a more aggressive, confident outfielder, making back-to-back all-star teams in center field in Davey’s two years as manager.

If some teams took such a radical risk with a player as talented as Harper, I’d smell a rat. Two years ago, Harper was a catcher. What’s he doing in center field? Are the Nats so desperate to fill a position of need that they are willing to put even more pressure on Harper, who hit only .256 in a half season in AA last year and now is being accelerated to AAA based on little more than a strong month in the Arizona Fall League? Doesn’t Harper have enough on his plate learning to hit southpaws and junk ballers? Now you want him in a semi-new spot, maybe in a September postseason race?

Besides, he’s 19, crazy gung-ho and plays like Pete Rose far more than Mickey Mantle. He can run into enough walls and teammates in right field. Why put him in center with more responsibility and maybe more danger? No, son, run to the wall, not through the wall. We want you around a while.

However, in light of Johnson’s and General Manager Mike Rizzo’s backgrounds — they view themselves as lifers who pride themselves on evaluating talent and developing it properly — some benefit of the doubt is due. This wasn’t done lightly. The Nats already switched Harper from catcher to outfield to save his legs and maximize his career as a hitter. Right field was the logical first stop for his big arm. But nobody ever said it was the last stop.

“Harper’s a horse, can’t wear him out. He runs good enough, better than plenty who play center,” Johnson said. But what did Harper think?

“That’s my favorite spot,” Harper told Johnson.

“He loves it,” Johnson said. “That’s the one thing I wanted to hear.”

If Harper succeeds, the ramifications are widespread. Other players benefit, such as Jayson Werth, 33, who can play his natural right field and not get exhausted in center when Harper moves up to the majors.

Last year, Werth batted and played wherever asked, willing to tie himself in a pretzel for his money. But did it help him? Johnson wants him back in all his comfort zones. “He’s here six more years,” he said. Help him prosper.

If Harper plays center, Michael Morse, Adam LaRoche and eventually Anthony Rendon, all corner players, fit into the team’s jigsaw puzzle better.

Finally, a move to center field puts less demands on Harper from the media and fans. A center fielder doesn’t have to hit as much to be considered a success. If Harper someday has 23 homers, 23 steals, 81 RBI and hits .255, that’d be miles below his hype. Yet that’s what fine young center fielders Andrew McCutchen, Chris Young, Adam Jones and B.J. Upton had in 2011.

Can Harper make the switch? Center is a different animal. It’s vast. Nobody can hide there. The ball finds you and so do blooper lowlights. Your range, or lack of it, inspires or infects a whole pitching staff. Your baseball savvy surfaces or is exposed.

Last year at Bowie in AA, I lost track while watching a lopsided game. The Harrisburg left fielder crashed into the fence at a scary speed, caught the ball fully extended, then threw all the way back to first base on the fly to try to double off a runner — one of the longest accurate throws I’ve ever seen. “Who was that?” I said. It was Harper.

This spring training, I mentioned the play. Harper grinned, aware his team had been seven runs ahead and he’d partly done it for the pure, crazy fun of it. “Someday I want to be a great outfielder,” he said. “I got a long way to go.”

That’s really why Bryce Harper is going to AAA. The stakes are far bigger than whether he arrives in Nationals Park in April, June or September. If you think he was a potentially transformative player until now, just wait. If he comes back as a decent center fielder — a huge “if” — it changes his career and helps the whole Nationals jigsaw puzzle fit together.

For Thomas Boswell’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.
com/boswell.

 
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