COMMENTARY | For the second year in a row, Milwaukee Brewers' first baseman Corey Hart will have surgery on his right knee. There's just one slight problem - this time, it will keep him out of competition - for at least the first six weeks of the season according to Tom Haudricourt of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Hart proved that he was a fast-healer last season when he was able to defeat the timetable and recover in time for opening day from cartilage damage in his knee. This season will be a different story, as Hart experienced swelling in that same knee during offseason workouts, leading to surgery that will keep him out of baseball for four months.
This opens up all sorts of scenarios and debates about the Brewers' situation at first base. Who will start at first base to start the season? Does this injury have an impact on Corey Hart's contract situation and status with the Brewers? What happens when Hart comes back from his injury? Who is the long-term answer at first?
Remember that it was Mat Gamel who was the opening day starter at first base in 2012 before suffering an ACL injury, eventually leading to Hart shifting over from right field to play the position. Odds are that it will be Gamel reprising his role with Hart out for the time being - that is, unless Milwaukee's Minor League Player of the Year Hunter Morris has anything to say about it.
Morris, 24, has spent three years in the Brewers' system, and by his second professional season, he had already been promoted to Double-A Huntsville. In his first full season at Huntsville last season, Morris busted out the big stick and hit 28 HRs, but he also managed to hit for average (.303) and had a strikeout rate of 20.5 percent. As the Brewers' top position player prospect (via Baseball America), Morris received an invite to spring training despite not being on the 40-man roster.
Gamel knows exactly what it feels like to be a top prospect, as there was plenty of hype surrounding the 27-year-old. It was just a matter of finding a position at the Major League after being moved around quite a bit during his time in the Minors. Not only was there an issue with clearing space for Gamel, but when given extended playing time at the big league level, he simply hasn't produced.
In 106 career games, Gamel is hitting .229 with 6 HRs and 29 RBIs while striking out over 34 percent of the time. When he finally received a full-time role at first base last season, he was only hitting .246 with 1 HR through 21 games before tearing his ACL, and was in line to be a backup in 2013. Now, Gamel has new life with Hart out to begin the season, but just how much time does Gamel - or Hart - have left in a Brewers' uniform?
The consensus seems to be that having Gamel as a backup plan at first base solves everything, but in reality, Gamel is a huge downgrade in terms of the production and defense Hart provides. Hart's injury comes at an inopportune time considering the fact that he is 30, in the final year of his contract and was finding his niche at first base. Now, Milwaukee has to decide which player is a more valuable trade chip, because shipping both off in 2013 isn't a realistic option with Morris likely a year away from the Majors.
In a way, Hart's injury could benefit the Brewers long-term. Should Gamel finally realize his potential at the Major League level and pick up the slack at first base, Milwaukee can feel better about allowing Hart to walk after, or even trade him during the season, and not rushing along Morris. Or, the more likely scenario - Gamel continues to play sub-par baseball in a Brewer uniform, bridges the gap until Hart's return, and is used as a pawn while waiting for Morris to develop once Milwaukee and Hart part ways.
Gamel is under contract through 2014 and arbitration eligible through 2017, and that's kind of a long time. But there's little doubt that this is Gamel's last-gasp effort to prove to the Brewers that he is a part of their future. In that regard, this year is almost certainly the final year we see Gamel start full-time for Milwaukee, and it would have been last year if not for Hart's injury.
Speaking of which, where does Hart figure in to all this? It's hard to imagine any scenario where he doesn't assume his starting role at first base when he's healthy enough to return, but because he will presumably be out for at least six weeks, that could ultimately affect how much money he makes in his next contract. The Brewers' have little to devote financially, and unless Hart's willing to take a hometown discount and make less than $10 million a year (the amount he's due to make in 2013), he isn't a realistic option to return, especially with Morris knocking on the door.
Morris' stardom is rising, and if he turns heads in spring training, that only makes Milwaukee's decision easier in 2013 - put Hart's name on the block, keep him through the season if the Brewers are a playoff-caliber team and accept the fact that he's a goner either way. With Gamel, stick him on the bench after Hart's return and float his name around. And with Morris, send him to Triple-A Nashville, allow him to develop further and be set on him becoming the Brewers' opening day starter at first base in 2014.
As exciting as it would be to see Morris suit up for Milwaukee this season, there are still areas for him to improve, and the Brewers have to be certain that he's the real deal. Besides, Hart is still ahead of him in the pecking order, and even with Gamel as a sitting duck, there is no use in recalling Morris to start for just a few weeks or sit on the bench behind Gamel.
In the end, Hart's injury gives Morris some more ABs during spring training and provides a chance for Gamel to increase his trade value. Should the Brewers manage to keep their heads above water before Hart's return and see Morris take a step forward, then Hart's injury could turn out to be a blessing in disguise.
Dave Radcliffe lives in a little known Milwaukee suburb and is a self-proclaimed Wisconsin sports expert who has contributed to JSOnline and as a featured columnist among other sites and publications.
You can follow Dave on Twitter @DaveRadcliffe_.
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