Brown sent down, but future with Nationals remains bright

Center fielder swung hot bat in spring games

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VIERA, Fla. — As the Washington Nationals’ were paring their spring training roster, preparing for their first round of cuts Monday, third base coach Bo Porter saw Corey Brown’s name on the list and put in a plea.

“Do we have to send him out?” Porter asked Nationals manager Davey Johnson. “Let’s keep him.”

Ultimately, they couldn’t. But it wasn’t because Brown didn’t do enough in his brief stay to warrant a longer look. The second part of the return from the trade that sent Josh Willingham to Oakland last offseason, along with right-hander Henry Rodriguez, Brown earned so much respect during his time in camp that he may have played his way into a significant part of the Nationals’ future.

“If he keeps doing the things I think he’s capable of doing right on into the season, we don’t have to look for a center fielder,” Johnson said Monday, offering heady praise for a player at a position the Nationals have found difficult to fill since they arrived in Washington.

Also sent out were 2011 draft picks Anthony Rendon and Matt Purke, who were optioned to Single-A Potomac, and infielder Carlos Rivero, who was optioned to Triple-A Syracuse. Outfielder Xavier Paul (who has been excused from camp to deal with a personal issue), infielder Jarrett Hoffpauir, catcher Sandy Leon and right-handers Rafael Martin and Austin Bibens-Dirkx were reassigned to minor league camp.

But it was Brown who was commended most. As Johnson was delivering the news to Brown, he watched as outfielder Jayson Werth walked by, realized what was happening and expressed his own disappointment.

“That’s how much he impressed not only me and the staff, but his teammates,” Johnson said.

Filling the hole in center field was at the top of general manager Mike Rizzo’s offseason to-do list, and it remains a weak spot. But if the organization feels Brown has a chance to quiet its perpetual need, he’s heading to Triple-A for a very big year.

A high ankle sprain suffered in the first week of spring training in 2011 was the first in a season filled with setbacks for Brown, who hit .283 with a .370 on-base percentage and .466 slugging in 131 minor league games between Double-A and Triple-A for the A’s organization in 2010. But he started slow last year in Syracuse, hitting .206 until a torrid August helped boost his final numbers to .235/.326/.402 and earn him a September call-up. Brown had three at-bats in the big leagues before he went down with a staph infection in his right knee.

The infection, which ultimately required surgery, was supposed to clear quickly and not hinder the outfielder’s offseason preparation. It took time, though, before Brown ultimately was diagnosed with Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and feared a second procedure. Antibiotics eventually cleansed his body of the infection and with strong outfield play and an exceptional spring at the plate, he accomplished his main goal coming into this season: to prove he was worth it.

Brown made two highlight-reel catches in his final weekend with the team, including one against Detroit on Saturday and another on a sinking Matt Holliday liner into left center field Monday afternoon against St. Louis. He also hit .412 with a .412 on-base percentage and a .647 slugging percentage — including a home run off Tigers closer Jose Valverde.

“It feels great to know that that’s how [Johnson] feels about me and what they all think I can do,” Brown said. “I’m just going to try to build off this. I’ll go down to Syracuse, keep playing hard and stay healthy and get back up here as soon as possible.”

NOTES: Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman continued his hot hitting with a 2-for-3 day against the Cardinals, including a double and a home run. Zimmerman is 7-for-12 with five extra-base hits, including two home runs.

• Outfielder Michael Morse served as the team’s designated hitter Monday, playing in his first game in a week after dealing with a right lat strain. Morse, who was 1-for-2 with a double, still has not resumed throwing.

• Rookie outfielder Bryce Harper tested his tight left calf with running Sunday and was hopeful he could return to the lineup Tuesday.

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