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Bryce Harper will open the season at Class AAA Syracuse.
Yes, the 19-year-old outfielder had his moments against the big boys, especially during the first week of Grapefruit League play. But it was pretty clear all along his game wasn't polished enough to warrant a seat on the team's charter flight to Chicago in two weeks.
Truth be told, most of Harper's greatest moments of the spring came during batting practice as he wowed onlookers with titanic blasts over every corner of the outfield wall.
Once he faced actual pitchers in actual game situations? Well, he had a few nice moments. He beat out that routine grounder to third for a single against the Mets on March 5. And he crushed a double off the batter's eye in center field yesterday against the Tigers (though that hit came in the ninth inning off nondescript Class AAA lefty Matt Hoffman).
Harper's few opportunities to hit against quality pitching weren't nearly as impressive. In the last week he went up against top Braves prospect Julio Teheran, Yankees flamethrower Michael Pineda, New York ace CC Sabathia and Tigers No. 2 starter Doug Fister. Harper's total batting line against those four pitchers: 0-for-6, five strikeouts.
Perhaps it was best that Harper struggled to that extent after returning from a minor calf injury. Had he strung together a couple more hits, general manager Mike Rizzo might have had a difficult time justifying yesterday's move to send the kid to Class AAA Syracuse.
As it was, no one was arguing against Harper's demotion. It was the right call, and probably at the right time. Now Harper can go prepare for the start of his season without obsessing over his whereabouts come Opening Day. And now the Nationals can move forward knowing their starting outfield will include Michael Morse in left field, Rick Ankiel in center field and Jayson Werth in right field. (That's assuming good health for all three, which isn't the safest assumption at the moment, especially with Morse.)
If you think Harper's going to disappear from the spotlight, though, you are sorely mistaken. His every at-bat to open the season in Syracuse will be scrutinized, and his offensive stats will be noted after every game as, team officials, fans and media alike wonder when he'll be ready for his promotion.
Will it come after only 21 days spent in the minors, the minimum time he must stay at Class AAA to ensure he can't become a free agent until after the 2018 season? Perhaps, though Harper will have to burst out of the gates on a rampage to pull that off.
Rizzo, it should be clear by now, isn't going to make this move until he's 100 percent convinced Harper is 100 percent ready for prime time. And there are still plenty of things he must do to convince his GM of that.
The Nationals will not only be watching Harper's performance at the plate. If anything, they'll be more interested to monitor his progress in center field after determining that's where he'll get the bulk of his playing time.
Harper is a gifted athlete, and he's come a long way in the outfield since he conversion from behind the plate after the Nationals drafted him. But he's still got some serious work to do in center field, learning where to position himself and how to get the proper jumps on balls hit in any of three directions (to his left, to his right and straight over his head).
If the Nationals really are serious about using Harper in center field once he reaches the big leagues, they better be darn sure he's ready to handle that premier position at the highest level. And since he received only 20 games of experience in center last season (all of them at low-Class A Hagerstown), he's got his work cut out for him now.
The Harper decision, though, won't be based entirely on his play. It's going to have something to do with what's happening on the field in D.C. If this team is scoring runs and winning games with regularity, there won't be much rush to get him up here.
If, however, the Nationals struggle to put runs on the board early -- and especially if they're losing a bunch of games 2-1 or 3-2 -- the calls for Harper's promotion will be everywhere.
In short, Rizzo will bring Harper when he believes the 19-year-old is both ready and his best option in center field. Will that be in three weeks, six weeks or 2 1/2 months? Nobody knows yet. All we do know is the spotlight will be shining on Harper brighter than ever before.
He may not have made the Opening Day roster. But there are no more intermediate steps for him to take.
The next time Harper gets called into his manager's office, he'll be told he's headed to Washington.
Start the countdown.