VIERA, Fla. — Since early December, Washington Nationals manager Davey Johnson urged everyone to keep an open mind about Bryce Harper. Keep an open mind, he said, about the 19-year-old phenom making the Nationals’ 25-man roster out of spring training. Keep an open mind about him helping the Nationals from April through October and for plenty of years after that.
But the reality was that the Nationals — as well as Harper — had far too much to gain by sending him to the minor leagues to start this season.
Sure, Harper could have made them think twice with a blistering spring performance that didn’t give them much choice but ultimately the smart decision for the team and player always appeared to be the route they took Sunday when they optioned him to Triple-A Syracuse.
Harper hit .286 during his stay in big league camp with 11 strikeouts and just two extra-base hits. After returning from a six-game absence with left calf tightness, he was 3-for-14 (.214) with nine strikeouts.
Here’s what Harper had to say after he was informed of the Nationals’ decision:
On his initial reaction: “It sucks, of course, but I’m just going to take it and go down there, work hard, and try to get up here as quick as I can. Davey said that I just need to go down and work on some center field.”
On if he had resigned himself to the idea that he wouldn’t make the Nationals out of camp: “You know, of course you want to come in here and make the team every year. Hopefully that’s the last time I’ll get sent down, but it’s what happens. I wasn’t expecting it, but it’s OK.”
On how he felt his time in big league camp went: “My swing wasn’t where it was supposed to be. I think my hands were a little out of whack and my body was a little out of whack from the (Arizona Fall League). I felt very good in the AFL this year and I’m trying to get back to that. The last couple games I think I got back to it a little bit and I’m just taking it as best I can. I’ll go down there, work on my at-bats, work on my hands and everything like that.
(My time up here) is very valuable. I love being up here with all the guys, listening to all the veterans and seeing what they do everyday. Being able to listen to (Jayson Werth) and (Ryan Zimmerman) and (Jason Michaels) and being able to (learn) something from him every single day I think was huge. Just learning from Werth in the outfield, I think he really, took advantage of that and really helped me out.”
On the prospect of playing center field on a regular basis: “I love it. I’m excited. After (Davey) said that to me, I was excited to get down there and work on center field. I’m going to Syracuse so it’s a new experience and I’m excited to get going… I’ll play anywhere they need me. I’ll play right, left, center… I can play anywhere they put me and I’ll just let my athleticism go… I think center field is the easiest.”
On why this decision was likely best for all parties: “I didn’t want to break camp and struggle. I didn’t want to go up there and go 2-for-15 and everybody’s all over me, saying ‘He needs a little more seasoning.’ I just want to go down there and get better, get on my groove, get on a streak, be called up and hopefully be a game changer for the Nationals.
“I don’t want (them to say), ‘Hey, we’re going to start you off in the big leagues, you’re going to go 2-for-20,’ — like I do everywhere I go. I don’t want to do that and them send me down to Triple-A and I go 2-for-20 again and they go ‘What are you doing?’ Hopefully I can get up there and do the right things after I go to Syracuse.”
On how he views his role on Nationals: “I think we’re a contender, even if I’m not on the club. It’s going to be a great thing for me to go down, get better and then come back up and hopefully help out the club. I want that. I want to go up there and really help out. We’re a great organization a great team and we’ve got a lot of great guys. We have so many guys that can play different positions. I’m just another guy trying to make it up there on the club.”