While there is a flurry of questions surrounding Corey Hart entering the 2012 season, one thing is for sure: with the loss of Prince Fielder, Hart’s production in the lineup is crucial.
Hart is coming off of his first back-to-back productive seasons. Production from the 6’6″ right fielder had been sporadic throughout his career, to say the least. In 2011, however, he simplified his swing, removing any unnecessary movements that tended to get him off balance. Hart batted leadoff for Ron Roenicke’s squad in 63 games last season, including 11 Playoff games in addition 62 consecutive games to finish the season. Despite not fitting the prototypical mold of a leadoff batter, Hart flourished in the role. He batted .301 with 15 home runs and 36 RBI, providing a jolt of pop at the top of the lineup.
Hart enters the season as the leading candidate to bat leadoff for the Brewers, but recent comments by Rickie Weeks may play a role in how that turns out.
Dario Melendez tweeted that Weeks said, “I’ll like to bat anywhere else but 5. I just feel stagnant when I’m there like ‘drove in run, what’s next?”
Though the decision still remains ambiguous, the looming suspension of Ryan Braun would open up the 3-hole for the first 50 games until its rightful owner called its name. Neither Hart nor Weeks has ever batted third significantly in their careers (Corey only has 20 starts in the third slot). It wouldn’t surprise me to see Weeks hit first and Hart move down to third with Nyjer Morgan smushed in between. I wouldn’t read too much into his comments, however.
The loss of Fielder opens up more than vacant spots in the batting order; the opening at first base has been a point of emphasis and speculation throughout the off-season, now seeping into Spring Training. Mat Gamel, the former top prospect known for hitting cannon shots but being an ancient mariner at third base, is finally getting his chance at consistent playing time in the Majors. Roenicke considers Gamel to be the front-runner now at first, but the option of Hart’s lanky frame switching from right to first hovers over Gamel. Most likely, the Brewers will carry four additional outfielders (Morgan, Carlos Gomez, Nori Aoki, Ryan Braun) throughout the season, leaving the door open for Hart at first if need be. Odds are that Corey will stay in right and Gamel and, possibly, Taylor Greenwill man first base.
Hart’s production at the plate in 2012 will need to be consistent with that of the past two seasons. Continual work with former batting coach and current Cubs manager Dale Sveum got Hart back to an All Star level of play. Hart raked the ball all over the pasture in 2010 and 2011, hitting a combined 124 extra base hits. Last season, in only130 games, he finished with 26 home runs and a modest 63 RBI given the fact half his season was spent in the RBI-deprived leadoff spot. One spot of emphasis will be improving upon last season’s mark of .236 with two outs and RISP. The Brewers lost one of the best two-out hitters in Fielder (.299, 25 RBI with 2 outs & RISP in 2011) and two out production from hitters such as Hart is a key to repeating as National League Central champs.
Expect nothing short of an All Star-type season from Hart in 2012. I predict he, not Aramis Ramirez or Weeks, will be the bat that carries the offense throughout the season.
2012 prediction: .281, 28 HR, 81 RBI, 7 SB, .345 OBP, still does that funky one-hand-in-the-air-and-hip-twist celebration after a base hit.
For the sake of my inability to type words at the moment, I’m just going to cut straight to the chase. It saves you the obligatory feeling of having to read my opening morceau and restrains me from writing some sixth grade level jibberish. So let’s just cut to the chase, you and I.
With Opening Day now a mere 46 days away, there remains large speculation as to which players will fill out the 25-man roster. To spare you the agony of predicting which guys will begin the season in a Brewers jersey, I stepped up to the plate. Heroically, I know.
Short enough of an intro? Good.
Quick key: *=starter, (1)=batting order slot, +=Opening Day pitcher
LF*- (2) Nyjer Morgan– Plush will platoon with Carlos Gomez in center with Ryan Braun in the lineup, but will get the majority of starts in left to begin the year, assuming the MLB hands out a 50 game suspension to Braun.
CF*- (7) Carlos Gomez– To me, the defensive whiz’s key to keeping a regular role in the Brewers outfield rotation is, simply, to hit over .220. For most players, offensive numbers like Gomez’s would find them a spot on the bench, but the 26-year-old’s prowess in center field saves enough runs to put up with his offensive struggles. A place towards the bottom of the order would place much less of an emphasis straining to draw walks, Gomez’s primary struggle, and more toward driving in clutch runs and stealing bases.
RF*- (1) Corey Hart– Not the league-accepted ideal leadoff hitter, the 6’6″ Hart filled the role well for Ron Roenicke in 2011. He posted a .301 average with 15 homers and 36 RBI in his last 62 starts, all coming as the leadoff hitter. Expect him to keep the spot atop the Brewers lineup until Roenicke has to play his hand because of any struggles from Hart.
Norichika Aoki– The off-season transfer from Japan has yet to prove what he can do at a Major League level, but beats out any other competition from youngsters Caleb Gindl and Brock Kjelgaard. Once again, the Brewers won’t have any shortage of left handed bats on the bench.
Logan Schafer– Based on a whopping five plate appearances in 2011, Schafer appears to be the leading candidate to take the fifth outfield spot. He provides speed off the bench (swiped 16 bases in the Minors last season) and could find a spot on the Big League club even with Braun’s return if he outplays Aoki. It wouldn’t be surprising, however, to see the Brewers go with only four outfielders and leave Schafer off the roster to add a right handed bat.
**Each of these outfield predictions is assuming Braun is suspended for the first 50 games.
3B* – (4) Aramis Ramirez– It’s going to take a good month or so to get used to it, but let’s face it: Aramis Ramirez is a Brewer. All I ask in order to forgive him for being a Cub is 100 RBI. Nothing much.
SS*- (6) Alex Gonzalez– Another offseason acquisition by Doug Melvin, Gonzalez is an obvious upgrade at shortstop, both offensively and defensively. He may not possess the pop of Yuniesky Betancourt, but his glove and patience at the plate make up for it. Maybe he can make Brewers fans not cringe as much anymore when JJ Hardy goes yard in Baltimore.
2B*- (5) Rickie Weeks– Coming off back-to-back productive seasons, including an All Star Game start in 2011, Weeks needs to produce even more with RISP in 2012. With no Fielder and, most likely for the first 50 games, Braun, teams will find ways to work around Ramirez in the cleanup spot if Weeks and Gamel don’t produce. Just as he is the pivot man on a double play, Rickie is the pivotal hitter for Milwaukee this year.
1B*- (3) Mat Gamel– Young man, it’s your time. I mean, it’s not like you’re taking over for a three-time All Star, Home Run Derby champ, All Star Game MVP, the youngest player to hit 50 homers in a season, career .282 hitter with 230 homers in six seasons. No pressure.
UTIL- Taylor Green– The youngster impressed in 20 games in 2011, batting .270 and making the Postseason roster. I like him. You like him. Ron Roenicke likes him. This kid better be on the Opening Day roster.
UTIL- Cesar Izturis– He was invited to camp as a non-roster invitee, but Izturis’ experience and glove will be beneficial off the bench. Brooks Conrad, a notorious pinch hitter, could pose a challenge for this spot. Conrad has a career 14 home runs while in Atlanta, most of which came off the bench. Izturis, a Gold Glove winner in 2004, provides a more reliable option to back up Gonzalez, Ramirez, or Weeks and is a much better contact hitter (averages one strikeout per 10 at-bats over 11 seasons).
C*- (8) Jonathan Lucroy– With yet another year of experience behind the plate, Lucroy enters 2012 uncontested for the starting catcher role. Pitchers love his improving abilities behind the plate. He’s no slouch at the plate, either. He hit .265 with 12 dingers and 59 RBI in front of the pitcher throughout 2011.
C- George Kottaras– Randy Wolf’s personal catcher was solid as a backup in his second season as a Brewer. He set career highs in average, OBP, SLG, and OPS in 2011. There’s no reason to think he won’t improve both behind and at the plate this year.
1- + Yovani Gallardo
2- Zack Greinke
4- Randy Wolf
5- Chris Narveson
Expect nothing less than a great season from the intact staff from 2011 that was one of the National League’s best. Greinke, barring any setbacks and pick-up basketball games, will have a full season under his belt after striking out over 200 in 28 starts in 2011. Randy Wolf’s ability to pick up the dreaded stat of quality starts and Chris Narveson’s first couple innings are focal points for the season. We know what to expect out of the three studs at the top, but will Wolf and Narveson be as productive as they were last year?
John Axford (closer)
Francisco Rodriguez (set up man)
As much as I would love to see a guy like Wily Peralta or Santo Manzanilla or last year’s extra inning hero in Philadelphia, Brandon Kintzler, make the Opening Day roster, there isn’t the space to fit in all the options. I don’t see Roenicke and Melvin sending Parra down again and, essentially, ending his chances with the Brewers. With a lack of southpaw options for the ‘pen, his job will primarily be to retire possibly multiple left handed hitters in an inning. The Dillard selection, however, can be attributed more to an educated guess. With Estrada and Parra, Roenicke doesn’t need any more inning eaters and The Tim Dillard Experience has a repertoire much more suited to retire one or two batters than Brandon Kintzler. Just ask the Marlins.
* Predicting the Milwaukee Brewers Opening Day Roster is the “fifth inning” in a series of nine posts on An Infectious and Unconditional Love for The Game. Read each of the first four posts here.
After being hit by a pitch on the left hand Saturday night against Houston, results on the injury have come back negative, much to the relief of Brewers fans. He is listed day-to-day, and Ron Roenicke has not said when he expect Hart to return to the lineup, although it is expected he will not be in the lineup in St. Louis. Hart is hitting .309 with 5 home runs since being placed into the leadoff spot.