Welcome to Rounding the Bases, the weekly column where Ryan Topp and Steve Garczynski discuss the big questiosn facing the Brewers this week. You can continue the discussion on Twitter by Following @RyanTopp and @Steve Garczynski.
A difficult season for the Brewers doesn’t appear to be getting any easier. Yesterday morning General Manager Doug Melvin said on a WTMJ radio interview that first baseman Corey Hart may not be ready to return to action before the All-Star Break. Milwaukee is currently getting a combined .183 performance with four total home runs on the season from a traditionally offensive-oriented position. They claimed Juan Francisco on waivers and have been rewarded with a .043/.179/.043 performance in 28 plate appearances.
Corey Hart isn’t a fantastic first baseman, but the Brewers need him in the line-up providing good production from the position to be competitive. Hunter Morris is the prospect likely to get a shot to take over for Hart when his time is up in Milwaukee, though the team would probably like to keep him in Nashville for the entire season. After a slow start, he’s currently hitting .248/.332/.505 with 13 home runs. He’s increased his walk percentage to a respectable 10%, which hopefully means his approach is maturing.
Still, this is another situation that supports Melvin’s comments that any moves made will be with the intent to compete two to three years down the road. Of course, one of those moves was supposed to be shopping Hart and that is unlikely with the amount of time he has missed in 2013. So, what should the Brewers do about first base? Should they give Morris a shot, or stand pat and wait for Hart to return?
Oh, I think they absolutely need to stand pat and wait for Hart to return, whenever that is, for a bunch of reasons. First off, the proposed solution, Hunter Morris, may have improved his overall season line, but 248/.332/.505 in the hitter friendly Pacific Coast League is hardly outstanding. It shows some promise, and if he can figure out a way to maintain the walking and the power while hitting for a higher average, they really could have a major development success story on their hands. Still, it’s hard to imagine them looking at that line and saying “he’s ready to face the best pitchers in the world now.” I know you like the idea of throwing guys to the sharks and making them swim for it, but it’s not without it’s risks. Calling guys up too early can cause long term damage if struggling causes the players approach to change. There is some evidence that Morris pressed this spring with the 1B job potentially open, and I’m sure they would like to avoid a repeat of that.
Another reason why I’m OK with standing pat is that I’m not at all unhappy with letting Juan Francisco get the fat side (sorry) of a first-base platoon for a while. He’s a career .259/.312/.456 hitter against right handers, and despite the slow start, I like the patience he’s shown and think that the power will come along eventually. Even if the price is seeing him platooned with Yuniesky Betancourt, I’m fine with that. He’s also only 26 years old and giving guys around that age with at least one plus tool a chance to break out can sometimes pay dividends down the road.
Which brings us to perhaps the most important point: expectations for the team itself. They’re currently 27-38, 15.5 games back in the best division in baseball and 11.5 back in the wildcard race. They would have to climb over three teams to win the division and avoid a one game play-in situation. What would some sort of season salvaging move be for at this point? As disappointing as the offense has been in certain respects, it’s still above the league average in runs per game. Unless some miracle occurs to help the worst starting pitching in the league, it’s really besides the point what you do with the batters.
So, in the end, the team really doesn’t have much choice but to wait for Hart to come back, and hope that he hits the ground running.
Ideally, Hart was supposed to be traded if the Brewers fell out of contention early enough in the season. He has a solid bat for his position, he’s in the final year of his contract, and he’s 31 years old. Teams like that kind of player when they’re making a playoff push. Now it looks like he’s stuck in Milwaukee through the end of the season.
Hart has missed significant time in a couple seasons, and though he hasn’t had any seemingly major injuries (until this current knee debacle), the number of dings and surgeries have added up. Any team should be scared of a 6-foot-6 first baseman who lost his speed years ago, had an abnormally long recovery period for a knee injury, and is entering his age-32 season. Still, his price tag may not be that high. Should the Brewers consider keeping Hart around for 2014? Or is there a way they can still scrape together some value that can help the team beyond next year?
The Brewers are rapidly approaching the point where the goal with any player whose age and contract situation makes it unlikely that they’ll be around for the next winning club should be converting them into a player that can be. Considering Hart’s deal expires after this year and just how long his body will hold up to playing every day is an open question, he’s at the top of the list of guys who would be moved under normal circumstances.
He’s going to have a hard time making enough of an impact that the big leagues before the trade deadline to get much of a return back, so your suggestion of bringing him back for 2014 is an interesting one. There are a couple ways this could happen. First, the Brewers could make Hart a “qualifying offer” ($13.3 million last year) at the end of the season. If he says yes, they bring him back for on a 1 year deal and are in a position to possibly deal him at the next trade deadline. If he turns them down, he then becomes a free agent and the Brewers will then receive a pick at the end of the first round should he sign with another team. The other option, of course, is simply signing him to a new contract for 2014 and possibly even longer.
Exactly what the best course of action will be is hard to say at this point because we don’t know how healthy and productive Hart will be. It’s possible that Hart will come back and play so well that the Brewers have absolutely no issue making the qualifying offer and taking their chances with him. It’s also possible that he either struggles or has nagging knee issues that cause his value to be low enough that a qualifying offer wouldn’t be appropriate and asking him to come back on a smaller deal makes sense. In that case, it’s also possible that Hart doesn’t want to come back to Milwaukee and would rather do elsewhere to try and re-establish value in 2014. Not sure how likely that last scenario is, considering how open Hart has been about wanting to stay a Brewer and the PR value the Brewers could gain from bringing him back, even on a one year deal.
In the end, the whole situation is really a poignant warning to teams who try and squeeze every last bit of control out of a player before dealing them that it doesn’t always work out for you. I wonder what the return could have been had the team dealt Hart last July at the deadline. The team didn’t want to make it look like they were giving up on 2013 before it even started, though in the end, the pretense doesn’t seem to have been worth much of anything.