As Bryce Harper's sophomore season has begun with a torrid start at the plate, he's drawn plenty of headlines and plenty of praise. The player he is at age 20 makes eyes widen and minds wonder what the future will hold for the Washington Nationals outfielder.
But the Nationals also are monitoring Harper's progress in the outfield.
"He's coming close to hitting a cutoff man out there," quipped manager Davey Johnson.
On a more serious note, though, Harper's improvements in left field have given the Nationals even more confidence he can handle whatever they throw at him with regard to his position.
With Jayson Werth dealing with right hamstring tightness for the past week, Harper has shifted to right field twice, and was in the lineup there Wednesday night, though the game was delayed by rain.
It's given the Nationals a chance to see how things might line up a few years down the road — when Werth may shift over to left field and Harper may make his home in right.
"I think Bryce can play any of the three," Johnson said. "It's up to Jayson. I think it's a matter with Jayson of his legs holding together. ... It's not going to be something I'm going to have to address because I'm going to keep Bryce in left and J.W. in right."
The Nationals talked openly this spring about the idea that Werth and Harper eventually will swap spots. But they haven't revisited that thought lately, and they really have no reason to at this point.
The fact that they have been willing to move Harper — who played center field for the majority of his rookie season — to right field on a part-time basis, however, speaks well of how they view his progress.
"He's definitely shown the ability to adjust to all three positions and understand the responsibilities of all three," said Nationals first base coach Tony Tarasco, who also is the team's outfield coach and was the organization's roving outfield instructor when Harper came through the farm system.
"He's definitely progressed. ... When Jayson isn't feeling well and he goes over to right, it gives him the opportunity to prepare for whatever comes. I think whatever we throw at him, he's fine with it. A guy like him, anytime he gets an opportunity to mix it up, it probably keeps it a little fresh for him and makes it exciting for him. It's an opportunity."
The advanced defensive metrics rate Harper well, and he's ranked toward the top of the major leagues when it comes to making "out of zone" plays as a left fielder. Tarasco pointed to Harper's improvements in pre-pitch thinking, his expanded knowledge of hitters and how the Nationals' pitchers plan to attack them, and his physical improvements as well.
Harper got comfortable in center field last year, his favorite position in the outfield, and said he felt he "played a pretty damn good center field." The Nationals agreed, but adding Denard Span eliminated the need for Harper to play center. As for right? He's fine with that, too.
"There's not that big of a difference," Harper said, acknowledging that he finds himself learning something new about how to play the outfield each day. "The major difference is moving from center to left to right. Center, I feel like is the easiest spot. Left field they say is primarily the hardest with the angles and things like that. Right field, I think [Werth] is awesome out there.
"He's been playing out there his whole career and anytime he's ready to move to left, he'll let me know. I'm not going to move him out of his spot. It's whenever he's ready and whenever I'm ready."
The general rule of thumb is that it's more difficult to play left field, when it comes to reading fly balls and learning angles, but that the responsibilities are greater in right. For now, the Nationals are fine with Werth handling that role, but when the time comes they feel Harper will be ready.
"I think [Harper] is a very accomplished outfielder and I think right field would be an easier position for him to play," Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said. "He can definitely handle it. It's more how we have to think about the team element of it and see how it fits in. Does it fit in now? Jayson would have to learn a new position in left, so it's something we certainly don't want to attack right now."
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