Rizzo said that he and the rest of the Nationals brass were impressed with what they saw from Harper in spring, but wanted to give him a chance to refine his skills in the minors before getting a chance to play every day in the bigs.
“We felt that he could use the at-bats down at Triple-A,” Rizzo said. “We liked what we saw here in spring training. We said that we would give him an opportunity and keep an open mind to make the club, but if he didn’t show us he was ready to perform in the big leagues and stay in the big leagues, we would take the cautious route and option him down to Triple-A to get more seasoning and more at-bats.”
So what led the Nats to move Harper to center field down at Syracuse?
“We saw the athleticism and the speed and the range that he showed in right field and ... we’d like to give him an opportunity to see what he can do as a center fielder,” Rizzo said. “There’s a hole there for us, and ... we’ve got a young 19-year-old that’s athletic and adapts to new positions quickly. We want to see what he can do as a center fielder.”
Some had assumed that moving Harper over to center field would only be a temporary move for the organization, allowing Harper to fill the team’s current void at the position for the short-term.
But Rizzo said that the Nats are not concerned about the grind of playing center field “zapping” Harper’s power, and if he shows that he can man the position effectively, he can emerge as an option there for years to come.
“Let’s make an evaluation and see how he does,” Rizzo said. “If he handles it and we think that he’s a long-term answer for us in center, he’ll certainly be the long-term answer.”
One factor to consider, Rizzo pointed out, is that Harper might not be done growing just yet. He is only 19, and his brother, Bryan, is 6-foot-5, 205 lbs. Harper gained an inch and 15 lbs. within the last year, according to Rizzo, and if he keeps on adding inches and pounds, might lose some of his speed and outgrow center field.
Still, the Nats will give Harper a chance to make that position his.
“We’ve got a terrifically athletic guy that runs well and throws well and has great instincts for the game and a hole at that position, so let’s see if he can handle it,” Rizzo said.
Harper only played 37 games at Double-A Harrisburg last season, and hit just .256 in that time. But instead of sending Harper back to Harrisburg, the Nats made the decision to bump Harper up a level and start him at Triple-A Syracuse.
“We thought that the games in Double-A Harrisburg, he showed us that he could handle Double-A pitching just fine,” Rizzo said. “And then he went to the (Arizona) Fall League and handled that level. I always think of that as a Triple-A slash accelerated Double-A level. He had no problem there. We don’t see that he’s going to be over his skiis as a Triple-A player.”