LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- The original lineup sheets handed out before Wednesday's game between the Nationals and Braves had Bryce Harper, making his return from a calf injury, listed as a right fielder. Nothing strange about that. Harper is, after all, considered the Nats' right fielder of the future, what with that bazooka moonlighting as a right arm. Except the lineup cards in question were incorrect. Washington manager Davey Johnson had actually penciled Harper in for center field.
And suddenly, just when Harper's odds of breaking camp with the Nats seemed in serious doubt, his bid to become a big leaguer just became a bit more complex and, perhaps, a bit more realistic.
"Outfield is still fairly new for Bryce," Johnson said of Harper, who converted from catcher after the Nats made him the No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 Draft. "He's taken to it very well. But just because he's got a strong arm doesn't mean I have to just play him in right field." No, it doesn't. And if Harper truly believes he's ready for prime time, he might as well stand up in the Nats' clubhouse and sing, "Look at me, I can be center field!" Yes, right field is the predominant spot for strong-armed kids like Harper, but if your life depended on a prediction as to which guy could more seamlessly make the transition from right to center, who would you pick: the 19-year-old Harper, or the 32-year-old Jayson Werth? Thought so. "He's a gifted athlete," Johnson said of Harper. "As far as I'm concerned, anybody that can throw and run like he can should have experience at all the outfield positions." By now, you know the storyline at play here. Johnson wants Harper on his Opening Day roster. He believes a club should break camp with its 25 best players, regardless of experience, and he firmly believes Harper is ready to contribute in a meaningful way. The calf injury that held Harper up for a few days didn't help the kid's cause. But the beauty of being 19 is the ability to bounce back from such ailments pretty quickly, and Harper spent his entire time on the pine begging to get back on the field. Now, when it comes to getting Harper on the field for Opening Day, there are serious financial ramifications in play that can't be ignored. As I've written before, the Nats would be wise to give Harper more Triple-A seasoning, not just for his own development (he's logged just 37 games above the Class A level, all at Double-A) but for their own future. As fans of the game, we may not like to hear about service time and arbitration clocks gumming up the timeline at which the game's premier prospects push their way toward the Major League scene, but such is a fact of life in front offices. That said, the Nats have every expectation of contending in a loaded National League East this season, and they have a gaping hole in their outfield. Werth and Michael Morse are, if healthy, locked in, and the presumption has been that if Harper doesn't make the roster, Werth will stay in right and either Rick Ankiel or Roger Bernadina will man center. Werth, it has been assumed, will slide to center whenever Harper arrives. Of course, it's not that simple. For one, Ankiel, considered by some to be the favorite for the center-field spot, has been out all week because of hamstring tightness. More to the point, Werth will be 33 this season, and the Nats are on the hook to pay him another $116 million through 2017. We can probably all agree that the Nats are not going to get $116 million worth of value out of Werth in that span, but if they move him to center at this juncture of his career and his body breaks down from the added wear and tear, they'll get less value out of him. For now, Johnson said Werth "passed the test" (not exactly glowing praise, but praise enough) for his limited play in center field last year. "But when you're putting a team together," Johnson said, "you like to take into consideration ... are you weakening two spots or just one?" And if the Nats have both Werth and Harper in the lineup, it might make more sense for them to have Werth in a place where he's comfortable, because Harper's acclimation to the big leagues is going to be a big step no matter which position he plays. Even with limited experience in center (he played center in 20 of his 108 games last year), Harper wouldn't have much competition for the title of "Greatest Center Fielder In Nationals History." From Brad Wilkerson on, it's been a gruesome group. For his part, Harper finds center field to be easier than right, anyway. "Reading the ball off the bat is a lot easier," he said, "and being up the middle makes it a lot easier to play out there. I think some of the angles you have to take in left field or right field, diving this way or that way, makes it tougher. In center field, you just have a better feel for good routes." Again, the primary point here is that Harper is athletically gifted and 19. He is, therefore, malleable to the Nats' needs -- provided, of course, they're not asking him to make the double-play pivot or start throwing bullpen sessions. Could Johnson envision Harper playing center field at the Major League level this season? "I mean, I wrote him in the lineup [Wednesday], and he's in there," Johnson said. "I consider this the Major League level." Exactly. Consider this Johnson's latest step in seeing if there's any way he can get Harper on his Opening Day lineup. And even if that doesn't work out because of that aforementioned service-time situation, consider this a distinct possibility for Harper's debut, whenever it happens to be. Harper could well be the Nats' primary center fielder when all is said and done this season. And when you consider the composition of this Nats roster, that could be the best place for him. "Who knows what the configuration is going to be tomorrow, much less Opening Day and next season," Johnson said. "I'm just giving [the players] an opportunity to express their talent and see how far along they are." Harper in center is worth a long look.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.