The Nationals shipped nine players to minor league camp in their first round of spring training cuts this afternoon, including optioning high-profile 2011 draft picks infielder Anthony Rendon and left-handed starter Matt Purke to Class A Potomac.

Anthony Rendon was optioned to Class A Potomac. (Jonathan Newton/WASHINGTON POST)

Manager Davey Johnson singled out two players who impressed most: Rendon, the sixth overall pick in the 2011 draft, and Brown, a 26-year-old who disappointed last year after coming in the trade that sent Josh Willingham to Oakland.

In his first major league camp, Rendon,  wowed Nationals officials with an effortless, powerful swing and his smooth hands on defense. He will begin the season playing mostly third base, Johnson said, with some shortstop mixed in. The Nationals drafted Rendon as a third baseman out of Rice, but with Ryan Zimmerman signed to a long-term extension, the Nationals may move Rendon around the infield. This spring, Rendon went 3 for 13 with three doubles and four strikeouts.

“I told Anthony, ‘You almost lived up to your press clippings,’ ” Johnson said, smiling. “For a guy from Rice, he was pretty impressive. I said, ‘Just go play.’ It won’t take him to be back here.”

Johnson called Brown, “probably the guy that impressed me the most, from what I saw last year.” Last year, after putting pressure on himself to justify the Nationals’ trade, Brown injured his ankle in the spring’s second game and struggled throughout his season at Class AAA Syracuse. Upon finally receiving a call-up, Brown developed MRSA in his knee and had to undergo surgery to clear the infection.

“He didn’t look the player I thought he was,” Johnson said. This spring, though, Brown showed potential. He made several spectacular plays in the outfield, including a diving catch today that he followed with a rifled throw from left field to first base that resulted in a double play. At the plate, he homered off Tigers closer Jose Valverde and went 7 for 17, including two RBI singles today.  

“This spring, he’s been one of the most impressive players,” Johnson said. “I told him if he keeps doing the things I think he’s capable of doing, we don’t have to look for a centerfielder.”

Said Brown: “I just want to try to build off this, go on down to Syracuse, keep playing hard, stay healthy and hopefully get back up here as soon as possible. Obviously, last year was a rough year. I’m grateful for the opportunity. I’m not really trying to think about 2011. I’m trying to move on from here.”

Purke also impressed, allowing one run in 6 1/3 innings this spring, including an exhibition against Georgetown. “I look for him to move pretty quick through the system,” Johnson said. “He’s that good.”

Today, Purke allowed one hit and one walk while throwing 1 1/3 innings that included a strikeout of Matt Holliday. Purke mainly valued the experience of being around veteran players.

“Top to bottom, everyone in this organization is exceptional,” Purke said. “This team is going to win, and win for a long time.”

Both Purke and Rendon were in big league camp because they signed major-league deals that placed them on the 40-man roster, not because the Nationals ever considered either a possibility for the opening day roster. Rendon signed for $7.2 million total, while Purke got roughly $4 million.

Johnson said he could envision any of the nine players sent down eventually helping the Nationals this season. He has raved about the quality of the camp since he arrived, and even when he cut players, he managed to praise them.

“I like just about everybody I’ve seen,” Johnson said. “I think we have some talent that can help us. It’s been a very productive camp. It’s been the best talent I’ve ever in a Nationals camp, and, depth-wise, as about any I’ve been in.”