VIERA, Fla. -- After striking out four times in an 11-7 loss to the Tigers on Sunday, Nationals top prospect Bryce Harper was optioned to Triple-A Syracuse, where he will play mostly center field. He will also see some action in right.
Once he is promoted to the big leagues, Harper is expected to be Washington's everyday center fielder.
Manager Davey Johnson said the "timing wasn't right" to let Harper start the season in the Major Leagues. "He is close," the skipper said.
Harper went 8-for-28 [.286] with a team-leading 11 strikeouts during Grapefruit League play. It also didn't help Harper's case that he missed six games because of a calf injury.
"He knows how much I love his talent. He is a special player," Johnson said. "He needs to go down there and do the same thing he is doing. He doesn't need to change anything for me. He just needs to go play.
"I basically said to him, 'If I had you up here and you were 1-for-10, I would probably have people [saying we rushed you].' I don't want that hanging over us."
With Harper demoted, it means that the Jayson Werth experiment in center field is over. He will play right field, while Rick Ankiel, Roger Bernadina and Brett Carroll remain candidates for the center-field job.
A baseball source believes that the Nationals will end up with an in-house candidate to start the season in center field. It has been reported for weeks that the Nationals have interest in D-backs outfielder Gerardo Parra, but Arizona told Washington that Parra was not available. Parra is a guy who can play all three outfield positions.
"I think Jayson Werth can handle center field, but Jayson might get beat up a little bit," Johnson said. "I would like to have younger legs out there. [Harper] will be more comfortable when he comes back here again. He will have a little more experience in center field."
Harper didn't take the news as hard as he did last year, although he vowed that it will be the last time he will be demoted to the Minor Leagues.
"I loved being up here with all the guys and all the veterans and see what they do every day," Harper said. "I always listen to Werth, Zim [Ryan Zimmerman], [Jason] Michaels. I get something from Michaels every single day. That was huge. It started from Werth in the outfield. I really took advantage of that. It helped me out. It was good."
Harper said center field is his favorite position, but he will play anywhere that he is needed. He has already played the two corner-outfield spots during his brief professional career.
"That's the greatest thing -- I can play anywhere they put me," Harper said.
Harper said his swing wasn't where it needed to be this spring. His hands and body were out of whack while he was in the batter's box. Had he been on the Opening Day roster, he didn't want to start the season in a slump and then have to be sent down. He would rather master his hitting in Syracuse before being promoted.
"I didn't want to go up there, go 2-for-15 and everybody is all over me and saying that he needs a little more seasoning," Harper said. "I just want to go down there, get better, get on my groove, get on a streak, get called up and hope to be a game-changer for the Nationals."
Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the time. He also could be found on Twitter @WashingNats. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.