Washington Nationals manager Davey Johnson believes 19-year-old Bryce Harper has all the tools to be a big-time player in the major leagues.
Just not yet.
Harper was one of four cuts the Nationals announced following Sunday's 11-7 loss to the Detroit Tigers. He will start the year at Triple-A Syracuse and get a lot of work in center field, which will ideally be his position if and when he is called up to the big leagues later this year.
Harper acknowledged he was dissapointed "but I'm just going to take it, and go down there and work hard and try to get up here as quick as I can. . Of course you want to come in here and make the team every year. 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."
Johnson told reporters last season he expects Harper to have quality at-bats at the major league level at the age of 19, and said Sunday he still feels like that will happen.
"The timing to me just wasn't quite right," Johnson said Sunday. "It's close. Real close. I'd like to have his bat in this lineup, I've made no secret of that. As far as I'm concerned, he doesn't really need to work on a whole lot."
Harper went 1 for 5, striking out four times against the Tigers, whose pitchers had 14 strikeouts. Starter Doug Fister struck out seven.
By sending Harper out now, the Nationals can get a longer look at veteran outfielders Rick Ankiel, Roger Bernadina, Brett Carroll and Jason Michaels. It also means Washington can keep Jayson Werth in right field, instead of having him move to center, which would have been the case had Harper made the team.
"I want his bat more than I want his defense," Johnson said of Werth. "I like the way Jayson is coming back and I don't want him getting beat up playing center field on an everyday basis while a rookie is getting his feet wet, because when Harper does get here, I don't see him turning back."
Harper was excited about the move to center field and said he also wanted to work on his timing at the plate. The No. 1 pick in the 2010 draft drilled a double to center field in the ninth inning Sunday, was 8 for 28 (.286) this spring.
"My swing wasn't where it was supposed to be," he said. "I think my hands were a little out of whack. My body was a little out of whack from the AFL (Arizona Fall League). I felt very good at the AFL this year and I'm trying to get back to that."
Unlike his first spring training last season, when the Nationals essentially told Harper he was not going to play in the major leagues, there is a different sense this season. Johnson said if Harper plays the way he thinks he is capable of, he won't be in the minors for very long.
Harper especially wants to be around if the Nationals make a playoff push.
"I think we're a contender, even if I'm not on the club," Harper said. "It's going to be a great thing for me to go down, get better, and then come back up and hopefully help out the club. I want that."
The Tigers had 15 hits, but manager Jim Leyland wasn't happy with his team's defense, which committed three errors.
"We didn't play very good defensively today," Leyland said.
Third baseman Miguel Cabrera went 2 for 2 with two runs scored and an RBI double. Outfielder Clete Thomas, who is trying to make the team as a reserve outfielder, drove in three runs and drilled a solo home run to right field.
"He said he was going for the owl," said Leyland, referring to a great horned owl that has taken up residence atop the light standard in right field. "He was about 40 feet to the left of it as the owl looked in."
Leyland was happy with Fister, who struck out seven in four innings. He was also pleased with Duane Below, a candidate for the fifth starter job, though he questioned the left-hander's pitch selection on a 3-2 changeup to Washington's Danny Espinosa that missed for ball four.
"If he threw it because he wanted to work on his changeup, then that was fine, it was a good pitch." Leyland said. "If he threw it because he was trying to trick him, it was not a good pitch. "
NOTES: The Nationals also optioned catcher Jhonatan Solano and first baseman Tyler Moore to Triple-A Syracuse while infielder Mark Teahen was assigned to minor league camp . The Nationals have signed 33-year-old outfielder Xavier Nady to a minor league contract. Nady did not receive an invitation to spring training and will start the season at Triple-A Syracuse. However, he could provide an interesting option for the Nationals during the season should they need an extra outfielder, or a right-handed bat. "He's got a good track record," Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said. "We're going to bring him in and see where he's at, health wise He's coming into minor-league camp, under a minor-league contract. We'll let him get in shape down there and see if he can ultimately help us in the big leagues." . First baseman Adam LaRoche pointed out the difference between the regular season and spring training when it comes to his injured left ankle, which is keeping him out of Grapefruit League games right now. "If this is in season, it's a non-issue," he said. "It's uncomfortable, but I can play. It's just the more I round bases, the more it flares up, and I want it to be totally gone, obviously, when I start the season." . Outfielder Rick Ankiel (hamstring) had a successful workout on Saturday. Johnson's custom is to give the player the next day off and then put them back in the lineup. However, with the Nationals being off Monday, Ankiel will return Tuesday night on the road against the Mets . Leyland was asked about outfielder Delmon Young, who is hitting .519 in 11 games this season and who will be a free agent after this season. " I like guys that are playing for groceries," Leyland said.