Hart’s knee surgery leaves gap at 1B

This is the fourth part in a five-part series previewing the Milwaukee Brewers by position heading into spring training, which starts Tuesday with pitchers and catchers reporting.

Friday: Starting pitchers
Saturday: Relief pitchers
Sunday: Catchers
Today: Infielders
Tuesday: Outfielders

ON THE ROSTER (alphabetical order): SS Jeff Bianchi (.188, 3 HR, 8 RBI, 0 SB), 1B Mat Gamel (.246, 1 HR, 6 RBI, 3 SB), 2B Scooter Gennett (.293, 5 HR, 44 RBI, 11 SB), SS Alex Gonzalez (.259, 4 HR, 15 RBI, 1 SB), 3B/2B Taylor Green (.184, 3 HR, 14 RBI, 0 SB), 1B Corey Hart (.270, 30 HR, 83 RBI, 5 SB), 3B Aramis Ramirez (.300, 27 HR, 105 RBI, 9 SB), SS Jean Segura (.258, 0 HR, 14 RBI, 7 SB), 2B Rickie Weeks (.230, 21 HR, 63 RBI, 16 SB)

OFFSEASON CHANGES: With all four starters returning across the infield, finding a veteran backup at shortstop was the top offseason priority. Still committed to Jean Segura as the starter, Alex Gonzalez brings everything the Brewers were looking for. It took a bit of patience and convincing for Gonzalez to re-sign as primarily a backup, but he gives Milwaukee a great insurance policy in case Segura isn’t quite ready for the long season. Milwaukee’s Opening Day starter in 2012, Gonzalez tore his ACL in May and missed the majority of the season. He proved the knee was healthy in workouts and in a short stint in winter ball. Though he’s never played any position other than shortstop in the big leagues, Brewers manager Ron Roenicke recently hinted Gonzalez will see time at first base during the six weeks Corey Hart will miss following knee surgery. The Brewers still could add another option at first base before the season starts, but may be fine letting Gonzalez and Mat Gamel share time. Brewers general manager Doug Melvin also added former American League Rookie of the Year Bobby Crosby and utility man Donnie Murphy to minor league deals with invites to big league spring training.

STARTER SPOTLIGHT: Roenicke thought he knew all four Opening Day starters in the infield, but Hart’s injury leaves a little mystery at first base. The other three starting spots are locked in: Aramis Ramirez at third base, Segura at shortstop and Rickie Weeks at second base. Weeks and Segura will have a full spring to work together as a double-play duo after playing a couple of months together at the end of last season.

When Hart returns in late May or early June, the Brewers will trot out three infielders with tremendous power potential and run producing capabilities. Ramirez, Weeks and Hart all have the potential to hit 30 home runs and drive in close to 100 runs.

With Hart starting the season on disabled list, Milwaukee’s sixth infielder will come down to Taylor Green, Jeff Bianchi or non-roster invitees Crosby and Murphy.  The Brewers need their sixth infielder to be able to play second or third base and all four have big league experience at both positions. While Ramirez and Weeks won’t take many days off, Milwaukee needs more of a utility player because Gonzalez has been exclusively a shortstop. Crosby and Murphy will get plenty of playing time in spring training because Bianchi (Italy) and Green (Canada) will be away for a bit of time at the World Baseball Classic. The Brewers know what they are going to get from Bianchi and Green, but they both have a leg up on Crosby and Murphy because they are on the 40-man roster. Crosby, 33, has been out of baseball since 2010 and is attempting to revive a career that had a promising start. In 2004, Crosby hit .239 with 22 home runs and 64 RBI en route to winning the Rookie of the Year. Oakland’s starting shortstop for the majority of the next five years, Crosby could never duplicate the success, and poor performance and injuries eventually knocked him out of baseball. The 29-year-old Murphy won’t add much at the plate but is up there with Bianchi as the best defensive option. Murphy committed just one error last season while playing third base, second base and shortstop for Miami and had just two errors the year prior.

Hart’s injury opened the door for Gamel to have another opportunity, but it will be a six week audition. Roenicke has made it clear Hart will return to first base when he’s healthy, meaning Gamel’s time in Milwaukee may be up if he can’t impress in the first two months of the season or prove versatile enough to play the outfield or third base. He’s performed well in the minor leagues and was holding his own as the team’s starter until he tore his ACL in May, but Roenicke won’t hand Gamel the keys to first base, and he’ll have to perform to find himself in the lineup. Gonzalez will get a crack at earning time at first base and the club will look at top prospect Hunter Morris in spring training, as well.

SPRING TRAINING QUESTION: Is Jean Segura ready? His talent is evident, but still unproven over an extended period of time. Segura struggled when he was first called up, but had a great final month and carried that success over to winning a batting title in the Dominican Winter League. The prized possession of the Zack Grienke trade came to Milwaukee with critics wondering if he could play shortstop long term, but Segura looked smooth and played well in the field in his short time with the Brewers. Being an everyday shortstop is demanding for anyone, let alone a 21-year-old, but the Brewers are committed to giving him time and patience even if there’s a period of struggles.

Segura has the potential to be Milwaukee’s starting shortstop for years to come, but the Brewers have Gonzalez to jump in and play this season if the young shortstop needs more time. It’s a lot better than having to rely on Bianchi or Crosby for an extended period of time.

MELVIN SAYS: “Jean Segura came up and played shortstop and after the Greinke trade we had the fifth best record in the major leagues. That gave us a lot of encouragement to give our younger players an opportunity.

“We’re committed to Segura as our shortstop.”

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