- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 14, 2012

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Bryce Harper made his return to the Washington Nationals’ lineup Wednesday night, but it was in a new place: center field. The outfielder, who missed the past six games with a tight left calf, played just 20 of his 109 minor league games last year in center.

Nationals manager Davey Johnson said he’d planned all along to play Harper in center at some point this spring. With Rick Ankiel still dealing with a left hamstring strain, Johnson felt the time was right. When third base coach Bo Porter ran the idea of playing center by Harper, the player’s reaction was enthusiastic.

“As far as I’m concerned, anybody who can throw and run like he can should have experience in all the outfield positions,” Johnson said.

The Nationals have had a well-documented search for a long-term solution in center field, but Harper has never really been considered that answer. Talk of him joining the Nationals‘ major league team this season focused on Jayson Werth shifting to center and Harper slotting into right.

Johnson feels that’s partly because of a lack of experience elsewhere. Harper played 51 games in right field last season and 37 in left.

“Just because he’s got a big, strong arm, that doesn’t mean I have to just play him in right field,” Johnson said. “Who knows what the configuration is going to be tomorrow, much less Opening Day or next season? I’m giving him an opportunity to go express some talent and see how far along he is.”

Harper’s quest to make the roster out of spring training may have been derailed a bit by the time missed with the injury, but Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said he doesn’t believe it will affect the team’s decision-making process.

“It’s kind of set him back a little bit as far as getting his at-bats,” Rizzo said. “But we feel he has enough time to get back in the swing of things.”

The Nationals have been pleased with Harper’s progress this spring. He’s 5-for-11 with a walk and two strikeouts in four games. He’s shown great speed on the base paths, along with some inexperience. He’s also shown improvements in the outfield.

As for whether a decision has been made on Harper for the Nationals‘ Opening Day roster, Rizzo points to the remaining 19 games on the Nationals‘ spring schedule. There’s still time.

Nats not shopping Lannan

Rizzo has gotten several calls on left-hander John Lannan, but he said Wednesday he hasn’t been peddling the 27-year-old. The Boston Red Sox and Detroit Tigers are among teams rumored to be monitoring Lannan this spring.

“I am not actively shopping him,” Rizzo said. “I haven’t actively shopped him all winter.”

If things remain as is with the Nationals‘ pitching staff, Lannan may be the odd man out in a roster crunch as the season nears. Chien-Ming Wang, who has performed well this spring, appears to be the leader for the fifth starter spot.

Lannan, who finished 2011 with a 3.70 ERA in 184 2/3 innings, is under team control through 2014 and has a minor league option remaining on his contract, though he will make $5 million this season.

At this point, the Nationals feel no pressure to move him and are looking for at least a comparable major league return or an above-average prospect.

“I wouldn’t say there’s a lot of interest,” Rizzo said. “In the baseball annals, the word gets out and people do the math and they see we have too many starters for too many spots. But again, this is way too early to say that we have too much starting pitching.”

Around the horn

• Outfielder Roger Bernadina was scratched from Wednesday night’s lineup, still dealing with the effects of having a tooth extracted Tuesday.

The Nationals are hoping Ankiel will be able to return to the lineup Friday.

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