The Great Bryce Harper Experiment of spring 2012 is over, with the Nationals announcing they have optioned the 19-year-old outfielder to Class AAA Syracuse — one level higher than he finished in 2011.
“He doesn’t need improvements,” Nationals Manager Davey Johnson said after breaking the news to Harper. “As far as I’m concerned, just go play. Get some time in Triple-A. I like his stroke. I like his aggressiveness. I like the way he plays the game of baseball. That’s no secret. . . . Last year I said he’d get some quality at-bats when he’s 19. I still believe that.”
It was an outcome few could have been truly surprised about. Despite Harper’s prodigious talent, despite Johnson’s public advocacy of his making the club, despite the organization’s insistence that the kid would be given a fair shot this spring, despite the final batting average of .286 he posted for the Nationals this spring, all the numbers — including his age, his lack of professional at-bats and the financial benefits the Nationals could reap by keeping him down even for a few weeks — were stacked against him.
“I’ve got to go down there and work hard and try to get up here as quick as I can,” said Harper, the top overall pick of the 2010 draft. “. . . Hopefully that’s the last time I’ll get sent down.”
But when the day came for Harper to move a quarter-mile or so down Stadium Drive to the team’s minor league facility for the remainder of the spring, it came with one stunning twist that almost no one saw coming: Harper was sent off with the mission to play predominantly in center field in the minors, not right field.
Why? Because the Nationals want him to play center, not right, when he arrives in the big leagues. It was less than a week ago that the Nationals began giving Harper time in center field in Grapefruit League games, and suggested it was a position he could theoretically play in the majors.
“I didn’t see anything” during Harper’s playing time in center this spring, Johnson said, “that told me he couldn’t do it.”
Still, this was an about-face for an organization that had suggested all along that veteran Jayson Werth, whom the Nationals signed to a seven-year, $126 million contract prior to the 2011 season, would shift from right field to center (where Werth has played plenty in his career and plenty this spring, including Sunday) once Harper arrived. Sunday’s message was the opposite.
“I think Jayson Werth can handle center field,” Johnson said, “but I think [he] might get beat up a little bit, and I’d like to have some younger legs out there. . . . I don’t want [Werth] beat up by playing center field an on everyday basis while a rookie’s getting his feet wet.”