MILWAUKEE — Brewers manager Ron Roenicke has spent plenty of time this season praising the defensive work of right fielder-turned-first baseman Corey Hart, as a slew of injuries at the corner infield spot forced the outfielder to learn a new position.
And on Monday night, Roenicke watched Hart deliver perhaps his most important defensive play of the year, snow-coning a long throw from shortstop Cesar Izturis for the final out of the Brewers’ Monday night game against the Astros, as the game-tying run darted home from third base. Hart’s pick was nothing short of fantastic, and on Tuesday, when faced with a question about the future for Hart on defense, Roenicke made his stance pretty clear.
“I can’t tell you exactly where because that’s (general manager) Doug (Melvin’s) decision. I’ve told Doug though that he’s a difference-maker at first base for me — some because of the way he plays and some because physically he’s huge.”
At 6-6, Hart’s size has certainly played a part in the increased defensive efficiency at first base, as normally errant throws have been pulled in without much trouble. Roenicke even compared Hart to former Brewers first baseman Richie Sexson, whose length was his greatest asset in the corner of the team’s infield.
But with an average of just more than five errors per season at first base, Sexson never won a Gold Glove at the position. At Hart’s pace — he’s errorless in 55 games at the position — and judging by the numerous plays he’s made so far at first, a Gold Glove, this year or in the future, isn’t necessarily out of the question for Hart.
“He says, ‘Nothing’s getting by me,’ ” Roenicke said of Hart. “When you have that attitude, he’ll go down and just block or whatever it takes. He’s been amazing; he really has. So I just wanted (Melvin) to know that.”
Expectedly, Melvin was mum on the subject of a potential permanent change to first base for Hart, merely adding that he’s been “very good” at the position.
If Hart’s future were to be a first base, though, the change would beg a very obvious question: What would happen to Mat Gamel, the Brewers first baseman that started 2012 as the everyday guy?
After being handed the job in light of Prince Fielder’s departure to Detroit, Gamel lasted just 21 games in the Brewers’ lineup before a torn ACL ended his season. And in that time, while Gamel had done fairly well, he hadn’t exactly made a splash on offense with a .246 batting average, one home run, and six RBI.
“Gamel, unfortunately, it was too early to really get a read,” Roenicke said. “He started playing great. He was doing good defensively. … And then he has a knee. So I don’t know about him. We still like him, but I don’t think he’s a guy that you say, ‘Oh yeah, he can definitely do it.'”
Gamel had spent previous years with Milwaukee at third base and in the outfield. But similar to the likely logjam at first base, Gamel’s spot at either position would be blocked by other Brewers who contributed more frequently in 2012.
Another mitigating factor in the decision to keep Hart at first base would be the outlook in right field, Hart’s former position. Since heading to the infield, Hart’s replacement Norichika Aoki has done very well in his stead, registering a .278 average with six home runs and 24 RBI, while batting in the Brewers’ leadoff spot.
If the organization were to deem Aoki as a candidate to be the team’s everyday right fielder in 2013, the decision to keep Hart at first base would no doubt become an easier one. But the decision on Aoki may revolve more around the Brewers’ future plans on offense.
“The thing with Aoki is if we don’t have another true leadoff man, he becomes important,” Roenicke said. “If we have a guy we think we’re comfortable with leading off, whether we move Rickie (Weeks) back there or Corey back there, then that spot becomes less important for his type of play.”
Clearly, plenty of decisions remain in regards to Milwaukee’s lineup next season, and lucky for the Brewers, there’s plenty of time to make said decisions.
But there’s no doubting Hart’s effectiveness at first base, and as he’s shown time and time again in 2012, there may not be a better option in the future on the Brewers’ roster —or in the organization — than Corey Hart.