Nationals option Harper to Syracuse

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Sports,MLB,Nationals,Brian McNally
19-year-old will get time in center field in the minors

Viera, Fla. -- There soon will come a day when Bryce Harper, one of the most hyped prospects in major league baseball's long history, is patrolling the outfield at Nationals Park. That time has not yet arrived.

The 19-year-old, in his second spring training with the Nationals, was optioned to Triple-A Syracuse on Sunday afternoon. There he will play both center field and right field and continue to adapt to professional pitching.

"Because when Harper does get here, I don't see any turning back," manager Davey Johnson said.

Harper is not used to getting cut. He was a star from the moment he hit the field for his high school team in his native Las Vegas and dominated when he graduated one year early and enrolled in junior college at age 17. Last year was his first experience being told that he wasn't ready, and he adjusted well at low-A Hagerstown and Double-A Harrisburg.

"Of course, you want to come in here and make the team every year," Harper said. "And hopefully that's the last time I'll get sent down. But it's what happened. I wasn't expecting it, but it's OK."

Harper went 8-for-28 during spring training with two extra-base hits. But he also struck out a team-high 11 times and walked just twice. In an 11-7 loss to the Detroit Tigers at Space Coast Stadium on Sunday, Harper struck out in his first four at-bats.

Performance wasn't the only issue. The Nats decided that playing veteran Jayson Werth, 32, every day in center could take a physical toll. That would be another associated cost with starting Harper on the big league club immediately. And while it wasn't addressed after Sunday's round of cuts, there are economic benefits to having Harper start in the minors. It will keep him under team control for an extra season and -- depending on how long he stays at Syracuse -- possibly delay his first crack at an expensive arbitration case.

"The timing to me just wasn't quite right," Johnson said. "It's close. Real close. I'd like to have [Harper's] bat in this lineup. I've made no secret of that. But as far as I'm concerned he doesn't really need to work on a whole lot."

Harper lamented that his swing wasn't where it needed to be this spring, where he felt it was during his time in the Arizona Fall League in October. But he valued the day-to-day advice received from veterans like Werth, Ryan Zimmerman and Jason Michaels. The organization believes he can play center field effectively at the major league level -- a position he played in just 20 games last season in the minors -- and will give him time to adjust to it.

"I didn't want to break camp and struggle. I didn't want to go up there and go 2-for-15 and everybody's all over me saying, 'He needs a little bit more seasoning,'?" Harper said. "I just want to go down there and get better, get on my groove, get on a streak and be called up and hopefully be a game-changer for the Nationals."

bmcnally@washingtonexaminer.com

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Brian McNally

Staff writer - sports
The Washington Examiner