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Center stage awaits Nationals phenom Bryce Harper

Rookie Bryce Harper will patrol center field for the Nationals this season, but just when he will be promoted from Triple-A Syracuse is difficult to predict. (Andrew Harnik/The Washington Times)Rookie Bryce Harper will patrol center field for the Nationals this season, but just when he will be promoted from Triple-A Syracuse is difficult to predict. (Andrew Harnik/The Washington Times)
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Two days after the Washington Nationals made the decision to send Bryce Harper to Triple-A Syracuse, ending his bid to make the major league team out of camp, general manager Mike Rizzo stood outside of the visitors' clubhouse in Port St. Lucie, Fla., and was asked a simple question.

What was it that the team wanted Harper to improve on before he would be promoted?

"Nothing whatsoever," Rizzo said.

When the Nationals gave Harper the only news he didn't want to hear for the second year in a row, it was different from the previous time.

He'd spent the better part of his 3 1/2 weeks in big-league camp answering any of the lingering questions the Nationals brass may have had. He was a model citizen, performed well on the field, greatly improved his outfield play and went about his business with a quieter confidence than has come to be expected from him. All they want now is for him to spend more time in center field.

Harper will play for the Nationals this season. The question is when.

"The one guy we're all looking at is Bryce Harper," said ESPN Sunday Night Baseball analyst and former Red Sox manager Terry Francona. "I think we all believe he'll be in the majors sometime this year, whether it's May or June."

But it's predicting that date precisely that likely will be an exercise in futility because of the many factors the Nationals will calculate before making that call. Harper's play in center will be paramount. Often, promotions to the majors depend on need, but the Nationals are opening the 2012 season with a need in center field.

And Rizzo has said that the Nationals will not be motivated by the Super Two date, which is difficult to predict exactly. In essence, they will not attempt to hold Harper down until they're ensured he wouldn't reach arbitration an entire year early and thus likely saving themselves several million dollars.

When he's ready, they'll take him.

"We're going to see where he's at developmentally," Rizzo said, noting that includes all facets of his game as well as his mindset. "When we feel he's ready to come up to the big leagues and help the club, we're certainly going to be aggressive, if he's ready for it, and let him do it."

So far, the transition to center has gone well. Since moving back over to the minor league side of camp, officials say, Harper has excelled in games and in work with roving outfield instructor Tony Tarasco.

After a rookie professional season spent largely on the corners, the Nationals seem to feel they've finally found the best place for their phenom.

"It fits his personality," player development director Doug Harris said. "He's a high-energy guy, and he likes to lead by performance, by example. [Center field] allows him the freedom to do that."

Said Rizzo: "If anybody can pull it off, he can."

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