The Washington Nationals were aggressive in their attempts to build a contender this offseason, but they’ve decided to play it safe with their 19-year-old phenom, Bryce Harper.
The Nats optioned Harper to Triple-A Syracuse after he struck out four times in the same game today. Bryan Lutz gave his initial reaction for Rant Sports just minutes ago. The question now becomes how long will Harper’s stay in Syracuse last?
One hole the Nationals failed to fill this winter was in center field. They’ll start the season with Rick Ankiel or Roger Bernadina in center, but are sending Harper to Syracuse to learn the position. Johnson is confident Harper can handle the switch over to one of the more demanding defensive positions, telling The Washington Post, “I didn’t see anything that told me he couldn’t do it.”
If Harper can transition to center, he might not be in the minors for long. The first thing most people talk about when it comes to Harper is his power, but he also has an elite arm and can run. He stole 26 bases in 33 attempts (78.8 percent success rate) last season.
Another issue, which surely no one in the Washington organization will publicly address, is the financial implications of when Harper is recalled. As soon as he makes his Major League debut, Harper’s “clock” starts. That means the sooner he’s called up, the sooner he will reach free agency. Again, no executives will address the issue in fear of repercussions from the Player’s Association, but it is now common practice for teams to keep players in the minors for months longer than they need in order to ensure another year of team control.
At the moment, Harper still has a great chance to take over as the everyday center fielder at some point in 2012. He doesn’t exactly face the stiffest competition. Ankiel is a plus defender, but hit just .239 with a .659 OPS last year. Bernadina put up similar numbers in 2011 (.243 AVG, .664 OPS) but has a bit more speed, as he has swiped 33 bases the past two seasons combined. You can never rule out the possibility of a trade, but quality center fielders are hard to come by.
Some may consider that a set-back, including Harper himself, but it’s very rare to see teenagers playing in the majors. A lot of guys Harper’s age aren’t even playing full season ball yet, so the fact that he’ll start the year a step away from the majors is actually quite impressive. In fact, according to USA Today he’ll be the youngest player to start the year in Triple-A.
The only people who should consider this move a setback are those who drafted Harper in their fantasy baseball leagues. Even they might not be disappointed for long, as I could honestly see Harper patrolling center field in Nationals Park by the end of May.