Bryce Harper to AAA was an easy call; promoting him will be trickier

Bryce Harper to AAA was an easy call; promoting him will be trickier

So Washington Nationals prospect Bryce Harper, the sideburned youngster who is expected to be a combination of Mickey Mantle and Joe Hardy but without the baggage, has been sent to the minor league camp, a prelude to starting the season at Class AAA Syracuse. (Presumably he’ll need that baggage back to make the trip from Florida to Upstate New York, but never mind).

This is no surprise, of course. It behooves the Nationals to keep him in the minors at least a month; that gives them an extra year of his services before he becomes a free agent. If he stays down three months, they can save millions down the road by preventing him from being eligible for arbitration earlier.

But it also behooves Harper to spend some time in Syracuse. He has shown flashes in spring training — in addition to being flashy, which he can’t help. In 28 at-bats through Sunday, he had no homers, two walks, 11 strikeouts and hit .286. He struggles against left-handers, which is putting it kindly. He has some work to do, and Syracuse is the best place to do it. He’ll see the best pitching available outside the majors, guys on their way up and guys who’ve just been sent down.

Manager Davey Johnson was vocal in his support of Harper making the major league roster before spring training began, but even the veteran manager has to see there’s work to be done. General Manager Mike Rizzo was open to the idea, and if Harper had been knocking the cover off the ball, Rizzo would have been forced to make a tough decision. Instead, this one was fairly easy.

Too bad it’s not the last one. Now the Nationals will have to balance the interests of the club with the interests of their pocketbook and the interests of Harper’s 19-year-old psyche. Pepper that management gumbo with the announcement that Harper also will be learning to play center field in Syracuse, and you’ve got the makings of quite a lively spring and summer in Washington (and I’m not talking about tourists standing on the left side of the Metro escalators).

Harper, of course, is unfazed by the idea of playing center, even though the plan had been for Jayson Werth to move to center and cede right field to Harper when the time was right.

“I think center field is the easiest” of the outfield spots, Harper said Sunday in the type of remark, given his vast experience in the outfield, that makes people want to shove a baseball in his mouth.

“It really didn’t matter. I’ll play anywhere they want me,” he said in the type of remark that makes people want to pry the baseball out and hug his neck.

So now the attention of Nats fans will be divided between the minors and Nats Park, as it was during the Summer of Strasburg, Part I, although this time, the product at Nats Park may be more diverting than it has ever been. Still, Harper’s progress in Syracuse will be a welcome distraction for many.

And it presents Rizzo and Johnson with what could be a troublesome problem to solve: When is the right time to bring Harper up, financially and otherwise? Money is a factor, but it’s far from the only one.

Let’s say Harper’s transition to center field is going smoothly, and he’s hitting at a decent clip. He will have done with the big club asked him to do, and he’s champing at the bit to head south. But let’s also say it’s a Boswellian world in which the Nats are, say, 25-7 on May 11. The team is rolling along nicely; do the Nats tamper with the fielding alignment and the batting order for Harper? Or do they put him on simmer in Syracuse?

Or let’s say the Nats are below .500 in June, and Harper’s doing okay but not great in Syracuse. Do they bring him up, hoping he’ll light a fire under the club? Or do they decide that’s too much to ask of a teenager?

The team faced similar questions with Stephen Strasburg, except then, the answers were almost purely financial. Strasburg was older than Harper, closer to major league readiness, and while his presence disrupted the rotation, at that time it was a rotation that wasn’t hurt by some disruption. The decision, in other words, affected fewer people and had fewer ways of blowing up in anyone’s face.

Harper’s eventual call-up will have all of the drama of Strasburg’s, but with bigger ramifications. This is not a guy the team wants bouncing between Washington and Syracuse. (See Bernadina, Roger.) Maybe moving Harper to center field was a stalling tactic to buy Rizzo and Johnson some time. If that’s the case, brilliant! Because once he’s up, he’s got to stick. So . . . no pressure, guys.

For Tracee Hamilton’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/hamilton.