VIERA, Fla. — A gaggle of reporters stood silently in the Washington Nationals’ clubhouse late Sunday afternoon as Bryce Harper emerged from the shower, wearing nothing but a towel and shower shoes. His duffel bag was already packed at the foot of his locker, his other belongings lined up and ready to go. The reporters gave him space to get dressed, but Harper, still in just the towel, beckoned them over.
“We can do this now, guys,” he said, probably the same way Mickey Mantle would have said it.
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.”
Eventually, with the acquisition (or development) of a pure, everyday center fielder, the Nationals could wind up with both Werth and Harper at the corners (most likely Werth in left, Harper in right), and current left fielder Michael Morse shifting back to first base. But in the meantime, the Nationals want Harper to embrace the center field role — which, according to Harper, is no problem.
“I think center field is the easiest” of the three outfield spots, said Harper, who played primarily catcher in high school and junior college. “It really didn’t matter. I’ll play anywhere they want me.”
The spring has been a relatively quiet one, in terms of controversy, for the 19-year-old lightning rod. He deleted his Twitter account, where he was prone to making grandiose statements and professing his love of Duke, the New York Yankees and the Dallas Cowboys. He appeared in a photo in GQ with an entire baseball stuffed in his mouth, with an accompanying interview in which he blurted several expletives.
On the field, though Harper missed six games with a minor calf injury, the Nationals otherwise rode him hard, sending him on most road trips and giving him four at-bats a game, where most veterans received only two. But since returning from the injury, his bat had gone cold, as he collected just three hits in his last 17 at-bats, with nine strikeouts.
“My swing wasn’t where it was supposed to be,” Harper said. “My hands were a little out of whack, and my body was a little out of whack.”
In what would be his final Grapefruit League game of 2012, Harper came to the plate five times Sunday against the Detroit Tigers. He struck out in each of his first four tries — earning the dreaded “Golden Sombrero” of baseball lore — and when he came to the plate in the ninth, a fan behind home plate yelled, “Five strikeouts in one game! C’mon, Bryce, you can do it!”
But on the first pitch, Harper slammed a fastball off the wall in center field, some 400-plus feet away, just his second extra-base hit of the spring.
“It’s no secret I like his bat potential,” the 69-year-old Johnson said. “And I’m not getting any younger, so the temptation [to keep Harper] was there waiting for me this spring. . . . It was fun to watch. He’s a gamer, and he can play. When Harper does get here, I don’t see him turning back.”
Nationals notes: Along with Harper, catcher Jhonatan Solano and first baseman Tyler Moore were optioned to Syracuse, while infielder Mark Teahen was reassigned to minor league camp. The moves leave the Nationals’ spring roster at 37. . . .
Right-handers Edwin Jackson (four innings, seven hits, four runs, three walks) and Chad Durbin (one inning, five hits, five runs with one earned) were the main pitching culprits in the Nationals’ 11-7 loss to the Tigers. But Jackson said he was encouraged by how strong he felt at the end of his 72-pitch outing.
“I felt like I could have [gone] back out there,” Jackson said. “In fact, I probably felt strongest my last couple of batters. . . . That’s what we’re working on — stamina. I felt pretty strong when I came out of game. I still feel strong.” . . .
Center fielder Rick Ankiel (strained hamstring) has been cleared to play and is expected to be in the Nationals’ lineup Tuesday night in Port St. Lucie against the Mets. . . .
Monday is the Nationals’ only scheduled day off of the spring.