Earlier in the offseason, we heard that Ron Roenicke and Doug Melvin approached outfielder Corey Hart about playing some first base during spring training and the regular season. The idea revolves around finding a quality replacement for Mat Gamel against quality left-handed pitchers, considering he only hit .213/.280/.375 against southpaws last season in Triple-A Nashville.
This article is not seeking to analyze whether or not Corey Hart is the Brewers’ best option to face tough lefties at first base. That has no basis to be challenged. Perhaps Brooks Conrad could put together some quality at-bats, but nobody will ever attempt to argue that he could outperform Hart.
Instead, this article wants to determine how Hart profiles offensively at first base. The natural presumption is that first base requires superior production with the bat. The premier sluggers in the game play the position. Can Hart produce enough to be at least average at first base?
One thing needs to be explained straight away. In 2011, offensive production at first base was not significantly better than right field. The natural presumption mentioned in the previous paragraph was incorrect. The league average wOBA for first basemen in the National League last season was .338. Conversely, the average wOBA for right fielders was only two points lower at .336. The difference is marginal. Hart’s .373 wOBA ranked seventh-best amongst right fielders in all of baseball last season. Perhaps he can be expected to profile similarly with the bat at first base.
Here are the Top 15 first basemen in the league (including Corey Hart) from last season, sorted by wOBA:
Hart stacks up a bit better than I would have thought prior to writing this article. Hypothetically, he would have ranked as the ninth-best offensive first baseman last season, outperforming the likes of Ryan Howard and Mark Teixeira. His .226 ISO would have also ranked as the sixth highest amongst first baseman. That suggests his power production would not be less valuable at first base, despite the overwhelming assumption that first base is a more premium position with the bat.
Much of this information is why moving Hart to first base on a full-time basis this season sincerely intrigued me over the winter. That would have allowed the organization to either (a) move Gamel to right field and lessen the impact of his poor infield footwork, or (b) bring in someone via free agency or the trade market to play right field.
Those thoughts appear to be superfluous at this point because Gamel has arrived at camp with a completely different attitude than in previous years. His fantastic physical conditioning surprised everyone, and his re-dedication to the game as a whole has inspired confidence. Plus, reports on his defense at first base indicate significant improvement from last season, which is always nice to hear.
Gamel has still struggled against left-handed hitting over the past couple of seasons, though, so a Plan B against southpaws is still needed within the organization, in case Gamel cannot make the necessary adjustments to improve in that area this year. Corey Hart appears to be a perfect candidate for that Plan B role.
Too bad moving Hart to first base against tough left-handed pitching still leaves a potential hole in right field. Ryan Braun and Carlos Gomez would presumably patrol left and center, respectively, which leaves only Nyjer Morgan, Norichika Aoki, and either Brooks Conrad or Taylor Green to play right field. Morgan, Aoki, and Green are lefties. Conrad is a switch-hitter and makes the most sense at the plate, but is below-average defensively.
Perhaps the organization attempts to pull an Erick Almonte type move in right field against difficult southpaws and play Brooks Conrad in that role. Ideally, though, Norichika Aoki displays the same aptitude for getting on base against both lefties and righties as he did in Japan. That would completely solve the conundrum, and early reports out of camp have been overwhelmingly positive on Aoki, with Rickie Weeks commenting a couple weeks ago that he specifically liked the way Aoki utilizes his hands during his swing.
How skipper Ron Roenicke will line them up against left-handed pitching remains a mystery at this point in spring training. How Corey Hart projects with the bat at first base when compared to the remainder of the league, however, is not a mystery whatsoever. If he can replicate something close to his previous two seasons, he will continue to be an above-average offensive player for the Brewers at either position.