The Washington Nationals optioned top prospect Bryce Harper to Triple-A Syracuse on Sunday afternoon, ending the discussion of whether or not the 19-year-old phenom would begin the season in the major leagues or back down in the minors.
Harper lost some time due to a calf injury this spring. Although the injury was deemed nothing serious, it appears that it may have affected his performance. After all, he has only gone 3-for-17 with nine strikeouts at the plate since returning to the lineup. Everything needed to go perfectly this spring for Harper to break camp with the Nationals’ big league club. Both the injury and plate discipline issues made the decision to option him to Triple-A for more seasoning extremely easy.
In Triple-A, the Nationals will reportedly attempt to groom Harper in center field. With Mike Morse entrenched in left field and Jayson Werth in right field for the foreseeable future, squeezing Harper into center field is a natural fit for the organization. Most scouting reports believe he possesses the natural athleticism to survive in center — though a corner outfield position will still be his eventual home — and his bat profiles as plus-plus in center, as well.
The time frame for a potential big league call up for Harper remains unclear. If he dominates Triple-A pitching as he did in the Arizona Fall League — where he hit .333/.400/.634 with six home runs — his time with the Syracuse Chiefs will be relatively short-lived.
Keeping the seat warm in the big leagues will be 27-year-old Roger Bernadina. Last season, Bernadina hit .243/.301/.362 and was worth +0.8 wins in 337 plate appearances. ZiPS projects approximately the same output in 2012, which follows historical precedent as the young man has not been worth a single win in any season throughout his career. He also plays poor defense in center field, too, which makes his lack of bat a bit more concerning.
Of course, Rick Ankiel could also see some time in center field. His bat leaves quite a bit to be desired, as well. He only hit .239/.296/.363 last season with the Nationals. Defensively, though, he does play a much better center field (+6.9 UZR in CF in 2011) than does Bernandina (-5.2 UZR). That significant upgrade could net Ankiel more playing time than currently projected at this point in the spring.
Whether Bernadina or Ankiel plays the majority of innings in center field for the Nationals this season, though, they will merely serve as a placeholder for Harper. The organization is perhaps only a few months away from trotting out a big league lineup with both of their hyped young players, Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper. The future of the organization is almost now.