VIERA, Fla. — There were a few important pieces of news to come out of the announcement that Bryce Harper was optioned to Triple-A Sunday afternoon, outside of the obvious in that he would not be on the Nationals opening day roster.
In making the announcement that Harper was being sent down, Nationals manager Davey Johnson also noted that Harper would be getting his playing time “predominantly” in center field. And that was a comment on two things: the Nationals desire not to wear Jayson Werth down by playing him in center field all season, as well as the team’s desire to retain as much outfield depth as possible.
Harper, for his part, loves center field. He finds it the easiest spot in the outfield for him to read the ball off the bat and the angles appeal to him most there. His speed is well documented, so running down balls should not be a problem and he’s shown off his power arm on several occasions. In short, Harper possesses all the capabilities to be a good center fielder.
“I didn’t see anything,” Johnson said, “that told me he couldn’t do it.”
And he’ll get his chance to prove he is one in the coming days and weeks.
So where does this leave the Nationals’ outfield configuration? Clearly their initial feeling that Werth would be able to handle the beating center field can take on a player has waned. When the Nationals signed Werth in the winter of 2010, they did so by noting they expected Werth to be able to play center field not only in the second year of his seven-year, $126 million deal, but in the last one.
That’s not the way Johnson portrayed it anymore on Sunday — at least not as an every day option.
“I think Jayson Werth can handle center field but I think with Jayson, he might get beat up a little bit,” Johnson said. “I’d like to have some younger legs out there and so I would be more comfortable if when (Harper) comes back here he has a little more experience in center field.”
The idea, as Johnson made it seem, is that Werth could still play center field if and when Harper arrives in the major leagues. If Harper stays in the minors for even a month or two, the Nationals would play Werth in right field in that time, thereby sparing his legs for those first several weeks. But if Harper excels in center, there’s no reason he couldn’t play there in the big leagues as well.
If the Nationals could save Werth’s legs the first few months, “then it would be easier to make the move there,” Johnson said. “Or, ideally, have Harper play center.”
Until recently, Harper wasn’t really considered to be a possibility for the Nationals in center field. He played just 20 games there in 2011 with most of his time coming in right and left field but Wednesday evening in Orlando, Johnson slotted him into center against the Braves and Harper wound up playing the position three times, starting the game there twice. He had painfully few chances out there in that short time but Johnson obviously saw enough to believe that his being there will make the Nationals a more competitive team.
Because of Harper’s age and his physical stature, the same concerns that center field will wear down Werth’s legs to the point where it could affect his bat, don’t appear to translate.
“He does everything hard,” Johnson said. “I haven’t seen him run down yet.”
Harper lit up when discussing the fact that the Nationals wanted him to go down to get more experience in center — that news seemingly making it easier for the outfielder to take the official word that he wouldn’t be making the Nationals’ 25-man roster out of camp.
“After he said that to me,” Harper said, “I was excited to get down there and work on center field.”
So until the time comes that the Nationals are ready to welcome Harper to the major leagues, the Nationals will go with a patchwork outfield. Assuming a healthy Michael Morse is manning left field, Werth will start in right. Presumably, the Nationals still ultimately view Harper as a corner outfielder, perhaps manning right while Werth shifts to left in the coming years and the Nationals find the long-term center fielder they’ve been seeking for so long. But that’s not the way things stand currently.
Rick Ankiel, Roger Bernadina, Brett Carroll and Jason Michaels will now compete for the three remaining outfield and/or bench spots.
And with Harper out of the picture, it gives the Nationals the best chance to retain as much major-league-ready outfield depth as possible. The Nationals have little chance of keeping any of those four players if they aren’t on the Opening Day roster so this move allows them a little more room with which to work. That also played into the decision to send Harper down.
“There’s some guys in camp that are interesting that I need to look at,” Johnson said. “They deserve the opportunity to show that they’ve progressed and I could possibly lose one of them (if they weren’t on the roster to open the season). Our depth in the outfield is not such that I would want to take that chance, losing them, without giving them an opportunity at this level.”
The temptation was there, Johnson admitted, to throw caution to the wind and keep Harper. But, as he put it, “the timing just wasn’t quite right.”