VIERA, Fla. - Bryce Harper might very well play in the big leagues this season.
He just won't do so opening day.
The Nationals optioned Harper, their top prospect, to Triple-A Syracuse following today's 11-7 loss to the Tigers, ending Harper's pursuit of a spot on the Nats' 25-man roster for now.
Manager Davey Johnson broke the news to Harper following his 1-for-5 performance today. Harper struck out in his first four at-bats, then doubled to center.
"He knows how much I love his talent, and he's a special player. He needs to go down there and do the same thing he's doing," Johnson said. "He doesn't need to change nothing for me. Just needs to go play."
The Nationals decided to option Harper now, Johnson said, to give the veteran outfielders on their roster - Rick Ankiel, Brett Carroll, Roger Bernadina and Jason Michaels - a chance to get more playing time and secure a roster spot as spring winds down.
The team also wanted Harper to get more seasoning in center field, a position which they feel he can play at the big league level in the future.
"I think Jayson Werth can handle center field, but I think Jayson might get beat up a little bit," Johnson said. "I'd like to have younger legs out there, so I'd be more comfortable if when (Harper) comes back here he has a little more experience in center field."
Johnson clearly is fond of Harper, both as a player and as a person. The Nats' skipper said last year that he thought that Harper could get quality at-bats in the major leagues while he's 19 years old. "I still believe that," Johnson said today.
Harper turns 20 in October.
After a strong start to spring, Harper cooled down recently, going just 3-for-17 since returning from a left calf strain Wednesday. Including today, he struck out eight times in his last four games.
But the talent is clearly there.
"I like his stroke, I like his aggressiveness, I like the way he plays the game of baseball," Johnson said. "That's no secret.
"When Harper does get here, I don't see him turning back."
And Harper might not have to wait long.
"He'll be back here pretty soon," Johnson added.
In addition to Harper, the Nationals also optioned catcher Jhonatan Solano and first baseman Tyler Moore to Syracuse. Infielder Mark Teahen has been reassigned to minor league camp.