With Prince Fielder gone and Ryan Braun likely to be suspended for the first 50 games of the regular season, the Brewers need to get creative to squeeze maximum value out of their remaining position players. Fortunately, manager Ron Roenicke is showing a willingness to do so.
On Tuesday, Roenicke confirmed that he intends to have right fielder Corey Hart work out at first base this spring. If Hart is capable of handling occasional starts at Fielder’s old position, his newfound versatility would allow Roenicke to tweak the lineup from day to day, optimizing matchups both offensively and in the field.
The success of the experiment is far from guaranteed. During his big-league career, Hart has appeared in all of two games at first base, and his lone start there came in 2006. He made 179 appearances at first in the minors, but most of those came at the lower levels. His most recent long-term stint in the infield actually came at the hot corner for Double-A Huntsville in 2003.
If Hart is passable defensively at first, though, he would be valuable insurance for Mat Gamel and Taylor Green. Though Gamel has a solid track record in the minors, he has thus far proven incompetent in the majors, striking out in 67 of his 171 career plate appearances. Green had a tremendous year for Triple-A Nashville in 2011, hitting .336/.413/.583 with 22 home runs, but he is not considered a top prospect. Both Gamel and Green bat left-handed, so if either emerges as an adequate option against righties, a partial platoon with the righty-hitting Hart could help soften the blow of Fielder’s departure.
The 6-foot-6, 230-pound Hart is also a below-average right fielder, so the Brewers could significantly improve their overall defense by playing the speedy Nyjer Morgan and Carlos Gomez together in the outfield. That arrangement would primarily benefit Shaun Marcum and Randy Wolf—two of the league’s most extreme fly-ball pitchers, who comprise 40 percent of the team’s starting rotation—and might also make sense in the late innings of close games. Hart’s ability to play first base is the key, because it would enable Roenicke to make the move without taking his bat out of the lineup.
Coming off his best statistical season (2.8 WARP) since 2007, Hart will need to do even more this year for the Brewers to remain a contender. Roenicke and general manager Doug Melvin are wise to give him the chance, and Hart—a free agent after the 2013 season—could benefit financially down the road by seizing it.