VIERA, Fla. — The Washington Nationals know what they have in Bryce Harper.
Since they took him No. 1 overall in the 2010 draft, Harper has proved to be the phenom he was labeled as at age 15. They know how much talent he possesses, how much fire he has for the game — and how greatly he could help this team get where it wants to go.
But it was for those reasons and more that they sent Harper to the minor leagues Sunday, optioning the 19-year-old outfielder to Triple-A Syracuse and bringing to a close one of the Nationals‘ biggest storylines this spring.
After a relatively drama-free camp for the oft-controversial teen, Harper won’t be heading north with the Nationals when they break camp. Instead, he’ll hit the only level of the minor leagues he had yet to visit, and he’ll work on becoming an every-day center fielder at the major league level. He’ll ensure, they hope, that when he gets to the majors it will be for good.
“He’s a special player,” said Nationals manager Davey Johnson. “He needs to go down there and do the same thing he’s doing. He doesn’t need to change nothing for me. He just needs to go play. When Harper does get here, I don’t see any turning back.”
In his brief career, Harper has shown a tendency to need time to adjust at each level. He struggled when he first arrived at the College of Southern Nevada before hitting .433 with 31 homers and a .987 slugging percentage. He scuffled to start last season in Single-A Hagerstown before putting up near-record numbers in the South Atlantic League. The same pattern followed him to Double-A and the Arizona Fall League. Each time, he worked his way back to being the type of hitter he is.
But the Nationals were leery of him opening the season at the major league level and struggling in that manner.
“I want to be up there and stay up there,” said Harper, who appeared to take the news well. “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 have them send me down to Triple-A and I go 2-for-20 again and they go, ‘What are you doing?’
“I didn’t want to break camp and struggle 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, be called up and hopefully be a game-changer for the Nationals.”
By keeping him in the minor leagues — even for a month — the Nationals will also not only continue his development but ensure that he will be on their team during his age-25 season. If Harper had made the team out of camp and spent the entire 2012 season in the big leagues, 2017 would be his final season before free agency.
The move also enables them not to push Jayson Werth to play center field all season, which would have been a beating on his legs that worried Johnson. By optioning Harper to Triple-A, the Nationals get a chance to play someone else in center and give Johnson the alternative of playing Harper there when he arrives in the majors. Harper played three games in center field this spring, starting two, and spent 20 games there last season.
In the meantime, Rick Ankiel, Roger Bernadina, Brett Carroll and Jason Michaels will compete for the remaining outfield and bench spots. The Nationals have little chance of retaining any of the four if they’re not on the Opening Day roster and by allowing themselves one more roster spot in which to keep one more of them, the Nationals also ensured they could keep more outfield depth in the organization.
“The timing’s just not quite there [for Harper to be on the team],” Johnson said. “Combined with the things that we need to do at this level with what we have, to add him to the mix, it´s just not quite there in my opinion.”
NOTES: The Nationals signed veteran utlity man Xavier Nady to a minor league deal Sunday. Nady will not be in major league camp and will start the season in Triple-A as he works his way back into shape.
• 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.