Hart hoping health holds up in outfield
Two-time All-Star begins first camp with Mariners after battling injury
PEORIA, Ariz. -- Given that Corey Hart is coming off two microfracture knee surgeries and has not played outfield on a full-time basis since 2011, there were questions over where he would line up when Spring Training began with his new Mariners club.
But the two-time All-Star right fielder has jumped straight into the outfield mix in the opening days of full-squad workouts, raising the distinct possibility that he could be far more than just a solution at first base and designated hitter on a team greatly in need of some added pop in the outfield.
"I feel good," Hart said Wednesday before heading out for his second day of full-team workouts. "Obviously as the spring goes, I'll be able to see how much I can do. It's still fresh. My body feels good now, so I want to make sure it stays fresh. I need to know what I can and can't do as it gets going. But so far, so good. There are no limitations. It's fun since I haven't been out there for a while."
Hart skipped only sliding drills the first day, and he was held back in some of the more rigorous defensive work being conducted Wednesday by new outfield coach Andy Van Slyke, who is pushing his protégés through some twisting and turning maneuvers in tracking balls over their heads.
But for the most part, it is full speed ahead for the 31-year-old slugger, whose looming 6-foot-6, 230-pound presence would be a welcome sight in the clean-up spot behind Robinson Cano. Hart averaged 29 home runs and 83 RBIs with a .279 average over his last three seasons with the Brewers (2010-12), and he brings a needed right-handed bat to a lefty-heavy Mariners lineup.
"He's very important to this club," manager Lloyd McClendon said. "As we sit right now, hitting behind Robinson, if he's healthy, he should have a real big year."
McClendon said he would love to see Hart able to play 145 games in the outfield this year, though he acknowledges that is the most optimistic projection. More likely, the big man will rotate between the outfield and designated hitter, with some first base possible.
"I don't really care where I'm at position-wise; I'm just happy to be on a team that wants me," said Hart, who signed a one-year, $6 million deal in free agency, with up to $4.65 million in further playing time incentives. "I've only been here a week, but it's a good group and I'm excited to be part of it."
When healthy, Hart is more athletic than one would expect for a big man. This is a guy who played shortstop in high school and was drafted as a third baseman by the Brewers when Jack Zduriencik was that club's scouting director. Hart converted to the outfield early in his career, and while he has always had some pop in his bat, he also stole 23 bases in both 2007 and '08 with Milwaukee and batted leadoff in 161 games for the Brewers early in his career.
Hart has become more of a power guy in recent years, and that is fine with the Mariners, who need a middle-of-the-order presence. But that will require that Hart stay healthy and regain his timing at the plate after a year off, his two looming priorities this spring.
"I have to be careful to not do too much," he said. "I'm going to get sore. It's going to take all of spring to make sure I'm 100 percent healthy. Every day is going to be a little different, and I need to make sure I don't overdo it. I can go out there and be full speed, but I'm going to limit what I do just to make sure when it comes to the season, I'm ready to go."
Hart has been working hard with hitting coach Howard Johnson on regaining his timing at the plate, and he has driven the ball hard in early batting practice sessions. But that too is a work in progress and something that can't be rushed.
"Until games start, I really won't know," Hart said. "Me and HoJo have worked a lot, hitting off machines, seeing velocity. After a few days, that feels fine. Now it'll be getting game experience, but I'll have plenty of that. I'm not worried at all, going toward the season feeling comfortable. That will come.
"I've never gauged spring," he said. "The only time I had a great spring, it was my worst season. It's not about production, it's just trying to get comfortable and making sure that once the lights come on, my body is healthy and I can go out there and be competitive. That might take all spring; it might take two weeks. But I'm not worried about it. If it takes five weeks, that will be right on track to start the season."
The other adjustment, after 14 years in the Brewers' organization, is a fresh start. Hart has always trained in nearby Maryvale, but he is now surrounded by an entirely new group of players in a different facility with a new coaching staff.
"It's different," he said. "I was with the same team for so long, so it's a little more exciting to be part of a new club. This team is definitely an up-and-coming team that is heading in the right direction. The energy is high, and that's something I haven't felt in a few years, so it's nice to be part of something like that.
"It's interesting looking around and being one of the older guys now. These guys are young, but it's a good team. We can't use that as an excuse. You have such a good mix now, and we're all here to win. The older guys they brought in, John Buck, Fernando Rodney and these guys, we're definitely excited to be part of this group, and hopefully things work out and we can take them to the next level."