Recovered Harper gets audition in center field
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.
It has been an eventful winter for Washington Capitals forward Keith Aucoin, a minor-league journeyman now in the midst of an NHL playoff run, a run made all the sweeter when his wife, Maureen, gave birth to son Brayden on Feb. 29.