A healthy Hart could see plenty of outfield time this year

 While it may not be much of a surprise, some will be intrigued to hear that the Seattle Mariners’ plan on using Corey Hart as their every day right fielder should his health allow it. As we’ve all heard several times by now, Hart missed the entire 2013 campaign after undergoing microfracture surgeries on both of his knees, and hasn’t seen regular outfield time since the first half of the 2011 season. The Mariners had expected Hart to see the outfield a couple days a week back when they signed him to a one-year deal in December, but conventional wisdom placed him as a regular first baseman and designated hitter rather than an outfielder. Perhaps that’s changed.

I’m going to go ahead and get it out of the way immediately: Spring Training quotes are practically meaningless. Lloyd McClendon can say whatever he wants, Jack Zduriencik can say whatever he wants, and Hart can say whatever he wants too, and we should read little into it. Of course McClendon would love to see Hart in the outfield the entire season because it means he’s completely recovered from surgery and his bat has hopefully gone back to it’s 2010 form. Not to mention it would alleviate some of the 1B/DH logjam the Mariners seem to love creating for themselves. However, seeing the 31-year old start Spring Training with the outfield group has to be considered a good sign for what may come in the upcoming season.

Hart says that he’s been feeling good so far in camp and admits that his timing is still off, but that’s to be expected from a player who hasn’t seen game action in over a year. There’s absolutely no reason to try and rush Hart throughout Spring Training or force fate by playing him in the outfield if his body isn’t up to it. Many viewed Hart as the team’s primary DH heading into the season anyways, so if by chance he can consistently spend some time in right field for any stretch of the year, that should be considered a plus. Bottom line though, the Kentucky-born slugger was brought in to fill the void in the middle of the batting order, so as long as he’s hitting, the position he plays isn’t all that important.

Let’s play the optimistic game and assume Hart’s knees will be ready to hold a corner outfield spot come Opening Day and the McClendon fantasy is suddenly almost realistic. Corey’s never been confused for a Gold Glove caliber outfielder, but it’s not like the guy is a complete liability in the field a la Raul Ibanez of last year. He’s actually had two seasons in which UZR has rated him positively with 4.4 and 2.0 ratings in 2007 and 2011 respectively. In both years Hart played nearly 1100 innings, mostly in right field, which translates to about 122 nine inning games. From 2008-2012 with 2011 excluded, Hart averaged about a -4.68 UZR rating in the outfield over the four seasons which is really just below average. And if he’s hitting 30 long balls, a below average defensive performance is more than tolerable. For comparison’s sake, Ibanez hit 29 home runs but had a -17.1 UZR rating. Still wondering why his WAR was practically zero?

So even in the best case health scenario Hart will likely be below average defensively, but given the questions surrounding his knees, what he’s actually able to contribute on the defensive side of the ball in 2014 is anyone’s guess. Perhaps Seattle ends up with an outfielder who’s lost a step and will produce an UZR rating closer to the -8.4 he posted in 2010, the lowest of his career. If we do see that as the product of 80-100 games in the outfield this year I don’t think anyone should be too disappointed. In fact, it could be considered an almost miraculous upgrade over last year’s outfield “defence”.

Looking at more realistic scenarios, the Mariners could probably plan for about 75 games in right field from Hart this year since he’s going to need a couple months to get his endurance back and get his body used to the rigours of an MLB season once again. We’re likely to see a one game in right field followed by one game as designated hitter kind of rotation for the right-hander. Like I said, there’s no reason to push Hart too hard and especially not during the early part of the season. If Seattle employs a rotation like this for April and maybe even part of May and Hart’s still standing, perhaps they begin utilizing him in back-to-back games and see how he holds up.

By the time June and July hit, we should have a fairly good idea of what Hart’s outfield capabilities will be, barring any set backs or new injuries that might occur (fingers crossed). He did miss some time in 2012 with the beginnings of his knee issues and missed the first month of the 2011 campaign with an oblique strain, so concern over him being injury prone is mostly validated right now. The point though, is that when healthy, he provides plenty of right-handed power and should slide nicely behind Robinson Cano in the new look batting lineup.

Nothing’s been set in stone yet, but one certainly could get the feeling that Seattle plans on using Dustin Ackley in left field and Michael Saunders in center field on a regular basis to start the year at least. Saunders would be a much better fit in right field where he’s been consistent defensively, but considering the other roster options are limited, it’s likely he’ll get the nod in center once again. Willie Bloomquist figures to play the role of utility man this year and will probably see some time in the outfield as a reserve. Perhaps Abraham Almonte could be a surprise factor in Seattle’s outfield as well.

Although Almonte may be best served to start the year with the Tacoma Rainiers, it’s possible he could play his way on to the roster this spring as a super-fourth outfielder of sorts. If Hart does find himself rotating in and out of right field, the 24-year old may be a decent option to be the other half of that rotation. Almonte does have a capable glove and solid speed and would be very useful off of the bench, but there’s reason to think he might push for an everyday role if Ackley struggles in left and he gets off to a hot start.

There’s nothing wrong with stashing him in Triple-A to start the year either and letting things play out, especially since there’s still a chance Nelson Cruz could be eating up many of the Mariners’ available right field at bats.

An interesting note from today on Danny Hultzen who is expected to miss the entire 2014 season after undergoing rotator cuff surgery in October:

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