As Corey Hart’s third straight successful season winds to a close, his thoughts have begun to turn towards the future:
Corey Hart asked agent Jeff Berry to communicate to general manager Doug Melvin that Hart was open to a permanent switch to first base, a position he adopted out of need this season, or a move back to right field, his position on Opening Day. Hart hoped that olive branch might spur discussions about an extension beyond his current contract, which expires after 2013.
“Hopefully, it will overlap and start something,” Hart said. “I’ve never been in this position, so I don’t know what their plan is. They could obviously trade me in the offseason, but I want to stay around. Hopefully, they want me to stay around for more than next year.”
Hart is certainly saying all the right things about wanting to be a Brewer past the 2013 season, but of course, when matters turn to money, talk is generally pretty cheap. The big question facing both parties here is whether or not there is a number out there that both parties can agree to. It’s impossible to know if such a number exists looking in from the outside, but there are a few basic things that can be learned from looking at comparable situations.
Even though Hart has made the transition to first base, it’s hard to find real solid comps for him at that position. He clearly doesn’t possess the sort of track record of a Prince Fielder, Albert Pujols, or Adrian Gonzalez. At the same time, his history is better than the latest 1B to get a multi-year extension, Edwin Encarnacion. The best comp for Hart among players to recently sign extensions comes at his old position of right field in Andre Ethier. They are virtually the same age, Hart trails Either by less than 200 career plate appearances (3,832 to 3,687) and by less than a point and a half of Fangraphs WAR (18.7 to 17.4). Both are starting to show signs of decline offensively, with OPS+ numbers down double digits this year from where they were 2 years ago, but neither seems on the verge of total collapse. It’s not a perfect match, but it does at least provide a starting point to look at.
If Hart and his agent are indeed looking at Ethier as an example of the sort of money that the free agent market could bestow on Hart after the 2013 season, the Brewers are going to have their work cut out for them to try and come up with a deal like his 5 year, 85 million dollar signed back in June. Yes, one can argue the Ethier contract is a case of a new ownership group, flush with cash, trying to sell it’s fan base on the notion that they’re not like their penny-pinching predecessors, and that “Ethier money” won’t necessarily be there for Hart on the open market. That may be true, but given that another Hart/Ethier comparable Nick Swisher is supposedly talking about wanting Jayson Werth-like money this off-season, it’s hard to imagine the market collapsing, either. Swisher’s situation should go a long ways towards clearing up just how truly representative of the market that Ethier deal really was.
If Hart is seeking that sort of money, the question shifts to just what the Brewers can realistically afford to pay him. Depending on how the deal would be structured, giving Hart “Either money” would mean something like an average of 17 million a year. After 2015, Ryan Braun‘s annual salary jumps to 19 million a year, which would mean the Brewers would be spending 30+ million a year on the salaries of two players. Could the team afford that, and also hope to bring back starter Yovani Gallardo, who can become a free agent after 2015? Doing that would probably mean committing close to 50 million a year in average salary to 3 players, at least until Hart’s deal runs out. Considering that 22 other players would still need to be paid, and paying them the major league minimum would already put the team at something like 60 million annually, it becomes almost unfathomable that the team could do it. In practicality, giving Hart an extension pretty much makes it impossible to bring back Gallardo past his current deal if he’s anything like he is now.
There is also the not so small matter of Hart’s age and already declining skills with the bat. At 30 years old, Hart is already well past the general “peak” baseball playing years of 26-28. This decline is already starting to show up in some of Hart’s stats. His OPS is currently.829, down from .865 and .866 in 2010 and 2011, respectively. Perhaps even more alarming, this year has seen Hart’s strikeout rate increase to 25.8%, which is more than 5% more than his career 20.5% mark. Also, at a time when veteran sluggers often see rises in their BB%, Hart has actually dipped below his solid-but-unspectacular 7.0% career mark down to 6.7%. None of these things are definite signs of permanent and irreversible decline, but they should definitely sound off warning bells for any team considering giving a player a long-term deal taking him well into his mid-30’s.
Ultimately, unless the Brewers plan to take their payroll flying past 120 or 130 million annually, or somehow can conjure up a farm system spilling over with massive amounts of cheap talent for those years, it’s hard to see how the Brewers can pay Hart anything like what he’s worth and still field a competitive team in a few years. So, really, what this is going to be about is who is willing to set aside their own best interest to continue this relationship past next season. How much, monetarily, is Hart’s professed love of Milwaukee worth to him? Are the Brewers willing to concede that bringing back Hart is more important than fielding the best team possible down the road? If someone doesn’t set aside their own long-term best interest monetarily, and in a big way, it’s almost impossible to see Corey Hart as a Brewer on opening day 2014.