(Paul Sancya/AP)

The implication was clear. When the Nationals summon Harper to the majors, they want the same hard-charging, free-swinging, tough-talking player they saw this spring, only more fully formed. Rizzo sent Harper to the minors not to change, but to gain experience and seasoning while refining his play in center field.

“We liked what we saw here at spring training,” Rizzo said. “We said that we would give him an open mind and an opportunity to make the club. But if he didn’t show us that he was ready to perform in the big leagues and stay in the big leagues, we would take the cautious route and option him to Triple-A to get more development.”

The Nationals surprised no one (or at least no one paying attention) by not starting Harper in the major leagues. But they offered a mild stunner when they made him a center fielder upon his demotion. Harper played 20 games in center field at Class A Hagerstown last season and also made a few appearances there this spring.

Several Nationals coaches and minor league coordinators expressed confidence he could handle the position and recommended he should gain experience there. The Nationals had planned on moving right fielder Jayson Werth to center field upon Harper’s arrival in the majors, but they now seem intent on keeping Werth in right and putting Harper in center.

“We saw the athleticism and the speed and the range that he showed in right field,” Rizzo said. “We’d like to give him an opportunity to see what he can do as a center fielder. There’s a hole there for us. To play Jayson in center field, which we feel he’s fully capable of handling center field, but it would lengthen his productivity because it’s less taxing on the body. We’ve got a young 19-year-old that’s athletic and adapts to new positions quickly. We want to see what he can do as a center fielder.”

The Nationals have not necessarily made Harper their long-term answer at center. They are leery of him losing speed as he grows. Rizzo said Harper grew an inch and gained 15 pounds in the last year, and his older brother Bryan, a left-handed whom the Nationals drafted last year, stands 6 feet, 6 inches.

“Let’s make an evaluation, see how he does,” Rizzo said. “If he handles it and we think he’s a long-term answer for us in center, he’ll certainly be the long-term answer. If we feel he can handle the position at the major-league level now, but if we’re looking for better down the road, then we’ll keep that in mind, too.

“We don’t know if he’ll outgrow the position just physically. So there’s a lot of thought that goes into it. But when Davey [Johnson] and I made the decision of, ‘Let’s see what he can do in center field,’ you’ve got a terrifically athletic guy that runs well and throws well and has the instincts for the game. So let’s see if he can handle it. Like I said, with the recommendation of some of our coordinators and on-field personnel in the minor leagues. We feel we’d like to give him a chance to see if he can handle it.”

Harper played in only 37 games at Class AA Harrisburg, and some in baseball believed the Nationals would have been more prudent to send Harper back to Class AA rather than Syracuse. But the Nationals thought Harper had accomplished enough at Class AA and at the Arizona Fall League, a league of elite prospects roughly equivalent to accelerated Class AA.

“We felt the games he played at Double-A Harrisburg, he showed that he can handle Double-A pitching just fine,” Rizzo said. “And then he went to the fall league and he handled that level. He had no problem there. I don’t see the adjustment being that he’s going to be over his skis as a Triple-A player.”