Is Corey Hart a true difference maker at first base?
"I've told Doug he's a difference-maker at first base for me." – Milwaukee Brewers manager Ron Roenicke on Corey Hart.
This was an interesting assessment by Roenicke earlier this week to general manager Doug Melvin about Hart, the nine-year veteran and longtime outfielder.
No doubt going public with such a sentiment also had to force a deep sigh out of Melvin, as no doubt "Corey Hart + contract extension" will become one of the more searched phrases in Milwaukee this winter. The 30-year-old is under contract for one more season – for $10 million – and usually that is when such conversations need to be had.
The team extended Hart in August 2010 after his salary jumped from $444,000 to $4.8 million after two years of arbitration.
It was a smart decision. Hart hit .285 with 26 homers and 63 RBI for last year's division-winning squad and he has hit 20 home runs and driven in 54 so far this season. At 31 next year, it would be reasonable to expect him to replicate those numbers again.
Going forward however, extending him at a price well over the $10 million he will make next season might not be such a wise move.
Hart will be 32 at the start of the 2014, and he and his agent Jeff Berry will no doubt be seeking the longest-term, highest-dollar contract available as it will likely be his last such opportunity to cash in. Berry famously won Hart's arbitration case against the Brewers in 2010, in effect forcing the team to make an early decision in extending him.
The problem for the Brewers is Berry knows how to get top dollar for his clients. Former Chicago White Sox pitcher Mark Buehrle, who was 32 at the time, received a four-year, $58 million contract from the Miami Marlins. Berry helped engineer the trade and signing of 33-year-old Roy Halladay (three years, $60 million) in Philadelphia. He was also part of the team that coaxed the San Francisco Giants into giving Matt Cain six years and $127.5 million.
True, those are all top-of-the-rotation pitchers, but what it proves is Berry knows how to maximize dollars and play the market. Hart has to like that. He also has to like the idea of being a "difference making" first baseman for the Brewers in a contract season.
Granted, Hart's ability to go back to playing a corner outfield spot may create more suitors for him, but let's just compare him to first basemen.
If he were to start the 2013 season at that position he would become the third highest paid first baseman in the National League behind former MVPs Ryan Howard ($20 million) and Joey Votto ($17 million) and the ninth-highest paid at that position in all of baseball. (Washington's Adam LaRoche would join Hart at the $10 million mark provided the Nationals pick up his option at that number).
In that context, the question is this: Is he truly a "difference maker" at first base?
Here is a list of who would rate above Hart in terms of salary at the first base position in 2013 (not including free agents and players with options):
- Prince Fielder, Detroit, $23 million
- Mark Teixeira, New York Yankees, $22 million
- Adrian Gonzalez, Boston, $21 million
- Ryan Howard, Philadelphia, $20 million
- Joey Votto, Cincinnati, $17 million
- Albert Pujos, Los Angeles Angels, $16 million
- Justin Morneau, Minnesota, $14 million
- Paul Konerko, Chicago White Sox, $13.5 million
- Corey Hart, Milwaukee, $10 million
In the first eight players, you can count seven World Series appearances and five victories, six league MVP awards, three League Championship Series MVPs, one All-Star game MVP, 15 Silver Sluggers and 10 Gold Gloves.
That is difference making.
At 31 years old next March, Hart will also be one of the oldest National League first basemen currently under contract, behind Colorado's Todd Helton (39), Howard and LaRoche (33) and Pittsburgh's Garrett Jones (32).
Only Konerko (37), Teixeira and Pujols (33), Morneau (32) would be older in the American League.
Is it unfair to compare him to those players? Not if the manager feels he's that important at that position.
Hart is a two-time All-Star in his own right and if he has another 25-homer, 80-RBI season in 2013 some teams may feel he's an upgrade over their younger, cheaper starters, creating a crowded marketplace. In baseball, comparing positions, age and salaries is an important part of the negotiating process and "difference makers" want to be paid as such.
Unfortunately for Brewers fans, unless there's a version of Corey Hart after the age of 32 that they didn't see before it, the team will be better off letting him test that market.
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