When Bryce Harper arrived at the park last week and saw the No. 8 next to his name in the starting lineup, the thought may have crossed his mind that getting an opportunity to play center field halfway through the exhibition season was a tad unusual.
Earlier reports that Jayson Werth would play center with Harper in right sounded reasonable. Werth had played the position before, though not on a daily basis. He’s clearly got the athletic skills to do it, and do it well, but if the thought of switching positions had created any discomfort, well, that’s a different story. It’s vitally important Werth return to the form he flashed in Philadelphia, the reason the Nationals pursued him in the first place.
Center field isn’t like first base, in the sense that conventional wisdom dictates that just about anyone can play first with some small degree of competence. Center requires some rather specific criteria that may not exist instinctively at the outset. Harper is a gifted young man, and having caught as an amateur, likely has a pretty good idea of what the position demands. After all, he’s watched from the opposing angle many, many times, and as a student of the game’s history, knows it’s not for beginners.
The whole magilla of postponing Harper’s free agency for a year is also a consideration, though not one the club will readily cop to. It was a nice thought that he’d be introduced to a full house on opening day, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s not that important at the moment.
Harper hit well enough this spring - .286 in 28 at-bats - but he also struck out 11 times, tops on the team. Some left-handers seem to retire him rather easily, but again, springtime stats are notoriously unreliable predictors.
Harper says center field is his “favorite” position, but then we already know he has a particular interest in Mickey Mantle - the numerals in his No. 34 add up to the Mantle’s No. 7. Harper said this will be the last time he’s sent to the minors, and I wouldn’t dispute that.
Harper will be in Washington for a long time. This side excursion to upstate New York for a while is no big deal.