For years, the questions surrounding the Washington Nationals' long-term answers in center field and at leadoff were the most pressing. Each season, it seemed, they would cycle through center-field options and try out player after player atop the lineup. The start of this one wasn't wholly different.
But now, with an attractive free agent center field class set to hit the market this offseason, the Nationals find themselves perhaps less in need to fill those spots.
In Bryce Harper, the Nationals think they've found a viable center fielder, at least for the next year or two. In Jayson Werth, they may have their leadoff man. This week, manager Davey Johnson called Werth "possibly one of the best leadoff hitters I've ever had."
And with prospects such as Brian Goodwin and Michael Taylor in the minor league system, the Nationals believe their long-term answer already is wearing a Curly 'W' on his uniform.
Knowing they have those options, general manager Mike Rizzo said this week, will shape their offseason plans. And though they're often linked to Atlanta Braves center fielder Michael Bourn, team sources have indicated that the Nationals are reluctant to spend $60 million-$70 million on a position they think they can fill in-house.
That feeling is helped by Harper's emergence as one of the best center fielders in the National League. According to fangraphs.com, Harper's ultimate zone rating over 150 games, to make it a more accurate comparison league-wide, was the best in the NL among players with at least 400 innings at the position.
His 28.6 runs saved were better than that of Bourn's 24.3 — and Harper was a catcher just two years ago. The Nationals see him improving at the position in leaps and bounds.
"I think he's been phenomenal," said third base coach Bo Porter, who's also their outfield instructor. "When you look at the maturation from where he started to where he's at now, he's getting to balls that, earlier in the year, even if he got there, it was a struggle. Now he's getting to them easy. Which means that his routes are better and it's a cleaner run."
Porter has noticed improvements in Harper's knowledge of the position, such as which way balls will slice or fade from him when he's in center as opposed to a corner position and to harness his powerful throwing arm when necessary.
He also sees Harper taking charge of the outfield, positioning himself on certain hitters without being told and reading how opponents' swings are coming off the Nationals' pitchers.
"I think the biggest change I've seen is his strides," said Johnson, who called Harper "a fit for me" as a center fielder. "The way he goes after the ball, it's not as choppy. He's getting a little more feel for his jumps. He pays attention. I think the biggest thing is, I think he's finally learning how to control that tremendous amount of energy he's got."
So, as Harper's comfort in the outfield has improved and he has adjusted at the plate, he's made the No. 2 hole in the lineup lethal.
And in the 14 games Werth has served as the leadoff hitter, he's hitting .390 with a .438 on-base percentage with Harper coming up behind him.
"[Werth is] a tough out," Johnson said. "He knows how to run the bases, when to run, when not to. Having him back and leading off, volunteering to lead off, just set the whole lineup. Having him and Harper 1-2, I wouldn't trade that for anybody's in the league."
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