As Hart heals, Brewers will test out fill-ins

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PHOENIX — For the second straight season, the Milwaukee Brewers are opening camp with questions at first base.

A year ago, Milwaukee was searching for a replacement for departed slugger Prince Fielder. This spring, the questions surround Fielder’s eventual successor, 30-year old Corey Hart, his ailing right knee and who will fill in for him while he is out.

Hart, a two-time All-Star, suffered a torn meniscus during the offseason. Initially, he had hoped rest and rehab work would heal the tear, but he opted for surgery in January with the goal of returning to action as soon as possible.

“I’ve been here since the first of the year working on this,” Hart said. “Once we settled on surgery, I started working to strengthen the muscles around my knee. Strengthening those muscles is only going to help the process.”

Hart, in the final year of a three-year contract extension he signed in 2010, is encouraged by his progress.

“Things are going well,” he said. “The swelling is gone. I feel good, and they tell me I am coming along well. I’m scheduled to have an MRI on March 8 to see if the tear is healed. I’m pushing, probably even annoying the doctors, to have the MRI on March 1 to see if I can get to work on rehab even sooner. I can’t start rehabbing until the tear is healed. I want to get on the field as soon as possible.”

Entering his 10th season with the Brewers, Hart also missed much of spring training last year with an injury to the same knee.  However, he bounced back in time for Opening Day and hit .270 with 30 home runs and 83 RBI. 

Even more important than Hart’s power numbers was the fact he made a seamless May transition from right field to first base after Mat Gamel suffered a season-ending ACL injury as Fielder’s initial replacement.

Though neither the Brewers nor Hart will set a firm timetable for his return to the field, dates ranging between late April and early June have been suggested.  In the meantime, the team is looking at other options to fill the position while Hart heals.

“Mat Gamel is back and healthy for us,” Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said. “And we’re looking at [reserve shortstops] Bobby Crosby and Alex Gonzalez getting some reps over there at first, too.”

Gamel got off to a slow start last season, batting .246 with one home run and six RBI before his season ended after 21 games. A highly-rated prospect in the Brewers organization since 2007, Gamel was the Topps Minor League Player of the Year in 2008. But his minor league success has yet to translate to the major league level, where he is a career .229 hitter with six home runs and 29 RBI in 106 games.

Gonzalez is another option at first base. Signed by the Brewers to a one-year contract last week, the team’s 2012 Opening Day shortstop missed most of last season after tearing his ACL shortly after Gamel tore his.

The Venezuela native hit .259 in only 24 games with the Brewers, but has some pop in his bat. He’s happy to be back with Milwaukee despite the fact the Brewers traded for Jean Segura to take over at shortstop after Gonzalez was hurt.

“Doug [Melvin, Brewers GM] called me during the offseason and when I was rehabbing,” Gonzalez said. “I was 100 percent by December, and had about 10 teams watch me work out in Miami. But Doug and I, we talked a lot. I really wanted to play with these guys.”

 Although he has never played first base, Gonzalez is open to the idea at age 36.

“In winter ball, I played shortstop and six or seven games at third,” Gonzalez said. “I didn’t play any first base, but I’ll sit down with Ron and talk. If he gives me a place to play, I’ll show what I can do. You never know what is going to happen in this game.”

Also getting a look at first base this spring is Crosby, the 2004 American League Rookie of the Year.  Out of the game in 2011 and 2012, Crosby last played for Pittsburgh and Arizona in 2010 before signing with the Brewers in January. Primarily a shortstop, Crosby, a career .236 hitter, has started 29 games at first base in his career.

“I’m very comfortable over there at first,” he said. “I’ve got my first base mitt here. It’s oiled up and ready to go, even if it does have (former teammate) Daric Barton’s name on it. Over the winter, I worked with my own personal trainer to get ready for the season. As far as getting ready to playing first base, I worked with my neighbor at home, Rod Carew. He lives about five houses down from me. We worked together for three or four weeks, and he was great.”

For his part, Roenicke is excited about the competition, but he also looks forward to seeing Hart back on the field and in the lineup.

“All of those guys and everybody here has a chance to make the roster,” he said. “That’s spring training. We look at everybody. But we look forward to having Corey back healthy, too.”