VIERA, Fla. — As the Washington Nationals’ walked off the field late Sunday afternoon, Bryce Harper went into manager Davey Johnson’s office and was given the only news he’d hoped he could stave off this spring: he was being sent to the minor leagues. Harper, 19, was optioned to Triple-A Syracuse thereby bringing to a close one of the Nationals’ biggest storylines this spring.
“He knows how much I love his talent,” Johnson said. “It’s no secret I like his bat potential and I’m not getting any younger. The temptation was there.”
But ultimately the Nationals opted to do what makes sense both for Harper’s development as well as their ability to keep him in their organization as long as possible. By keeping Harper in the minor leagues for at least a month this year, the Nationals will ensure that they will have him for his age 25 season. If he’d made the team out of camp and stayed in the major leagues all season Harper would have been a free agent after the 2017 season.
By optioning Harper to Triple-A, the Nationals also get a chance to see if he can be the long-term answer in center field that they have been searching for. Harper played three games in center field this spring, starting two, and spent 20 games there last season. While the Nationals came into camp thinking that Jayson Werth would be their starting center fielder if Harper made the team, it appears that line of thinking has changed. Werth, they feel, would be better suited to remain in right so as not to get worn down physically in center to the point where it could affect his hitting.
For now, the Nationals will allow Rick Ankiel, Roger Bernadina, Brett Carroll and Jason Michaels to battle it out for the remaining outfield and bench spots.
In the meantime, Harper, who appeared to take the news well and with a great deal of maturity, will go to a position he maintains is his favorite of all three outfield spots and get his work in at Triple-A until the time comes for him to get the call.
“Hopefully that’s the last time I got sent down,” he said.
In nine spring games Harper hit .286 with two extra-base hits, both doubles. Other than left calf tightness that forced him to miss six games, Harper roundly impressed during his time in big league camp this spring. Several of his teammates noted a more toned down demeanor and Harper appeared to fit in seamlessly with the rest of the Nationals this spring. Coaches also raved about his abilities and Nationals manager Davey Johnson stood by the prediction he made last spring that Harper would get quality at-bats in the major leagues at age 19.
Harper will be with the Nationals at some point this season. Now, all the Nationals and Harper have to do, is wait for when that time will come.
– The Nationals also optioned first baseman Tyler Moore and catcher Jhonatan Solano to Triple-A Syracuse and reassigned infielder Mark Teahen to minor league camp. All three are expected to join Harper in Triple-A this season.