VIERA, Fla. - In Bryce Harper’s mind, there was one upside to finding out late this afternoon that he was being optioned to Triple-A Syracuse: He also learned he’d be playing center field in the minors.
“I love it,” Harper said, a smile creeping across his face. “After (manager Davey Johnson) said that to me, I was excited to get down there and work on my center field.”
The Nationals have decided to play Harper “predominantly” in center at Triple-A, according to Johnson, which is an interesting decision considering the first time they’d made real mention of him possibly manning that position in the big leagues was exactly four days ago.
But with no clear major league-ready center fielder in the organization at this point, the Nats have apparently decided that Harper could be the guy to fill in at that spot for the short-term once he gets up to the majors.
Jayson Werth has seen time at center field and could continue to do so, but Johnson said playing the 32-year-old in center every day would get him “beat up a little bit”. The Nats don’t want to lessen Werth’s bat by putting more pressure on his legs.
That same line of thinking doesn’t apply to Harper, however, as the Nats feel the 19-year-old would be able to handle the grind that playing center puts on a player.
“I didn’t see anything (this spring) that told me he couldn’t do it,” Johnson said. “He does everything hard. I haven’t seen him run-down yet. He’s driven. I haven’t heard reports anywhere that he got worn down. Strong young man.”
Harper has gotten time at all three outfield positions since entering the Nats’ system last year, seeing 51 games in right and 20 games in center at low Single-A Hagerstown, and then playing all 37 games in left at Double-A Harrisburg. He also played strictly in left field in the Arizona Fall League last year, but Johnson said left is not in the cards for Harper at Syracuse.
Harper has said multiple times that center is his favorite outfield position (as well as the easiest), but he’s also repeatedly stated that he’ll do whatever the organization asks of him from a defensive perspective.
“It really didn’t matter,” Harper said. “I’ll play anywhere they need me. I can play right, left, center. I think that’s the biggest thing - I can play anywhere they put me, and I’ll just let my athleticism go.”
Until Harper gets up to the majors, Johnson said he will consider using Werth, Rick Ankiel, Roger Bernadina and Brett Carroll in center.
Once Harper has done enough to earn a promotion to the bigs, however, he and Werth could split time in center, with the other manning right field. That is, of course, assuming Harper shows that the requisite ability at center field in Triple-A.