LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Bryce Harper made his return to the Washington Nationals’ lineup Wednesday night but it was in a new place: center field. The outfielder, who missed the last six games with a tight left calf, played just 20 of his 109 minor league games in 2011 in center.
Nationals manager Davey Johnson said he’d planned all along to play Harper in center at some point this spring. With Rick Ankiel still dealing with a left hamstring strain, Johnson felt the time was right. When third base coach Bo Porter ran the idea of playing center by Harper, his reaction was enthusiastic.
“As far as I’m concerned, anybody who can throw and run like he can should have experience in all the outfield positions,” Johnson said. “Just because he’s got a big strong arm that doesn’t mean I have to just play him in right field.
“Who knows what the configuration is going to be tomorrow, much less opening day or next season. I’m giving him an opportunity to go express some talent and see how far along he is. It’s certainly not centered on Bryce. There’s a lot of other guys I’m interested in, (Jason) Michaels, (Brett) Carroll to name a couple… How it all fits together, when all’s said and done, the jury’s still out.”
The Nationals have had a well-documented search for a long-term solution in center field but Harper has never really been considered that answer. Talk of him joining the Nationals’ major league team this season focused on Jayson Werth shifting to center and Harper slotting into right. Johnson feels that’s partly because of a lack of experience elsewhere.
Harper, who was predominantly a catcher in high school and college, played 51 games in right field last season and 37 in left.
“He probably grades out more comfortable in right field and it’s probably the conservative thing for anybody scouting him,” Johnson said. “I’d say right field No. 1, left field No. 2, center No. 3, but that’s probably because he’s had (fewer) games in center (and) left. I don’t know numbers, but I think it’s an unfair evaluation on whether a guy can play that position and get comfortable.”
Johnson has been mixing up his outfielders fairly regularly this spring with Harper in right and Michaels mostly in left field being the only two who rarely moved around. Carroll has played all three positions, as as Roger Bernadina. Ankiel has moved around and Werth has played both center and right.
The Nationals are not set on their outfield mix with Johnson reiterating today that “nobody’s really locked in on a solid 25 yet,” and this is the time when teams are allowed to test out various possibilities for the future. It’s a positive sign, though, that the Nationals feel Harper could at least handle center field at the major league level. Werth “passed the test,” as Johnson put it, in center in 2011 but that doesn’t stop them from looking at other variables.
“It still goes back to what the needs of this ballclub are and it’s not about where Bryce Harper needs to play above the team,” Johnson said. “I’m looking at the best fit for this team and he’s still a part of that… I certainly don’t have my 25 picked… So is it OK if I just play a guy in center field and get him three at-bats and let him relax and play the game? We’ve got a ways to go yet.”
– The Nationals are hoping Ankiel will be ready to return to the lineup by Friday, Johnson said. Ankiel has been sidelined since Saturday with a strained left hamstring.
– Roger Bernadina was scratched from tonight’s lineup after continuing to deal with the effects of having a tooth extracted on Tuesday. He was feeling lightheaded, a Nationals spokesman said. Mark Teahen took his spot in the lineup and moved to left field while Eury Perez, who was in left, moved over to right field.