Corey Hart: Former Pirates Enemy Is Through The Gates

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Surely the news that former-Brewer Corey Hart signed this off-season with the Pittsburgh Pirates left some in Bucco Nation to suppress a visceral twinge of discontent. Corey Hart was a familiar enemy as recently as 2012. He carried a big stick into PNC Park, and, with fellow tribesmen Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun, trampled the homeland without regard for their less-talented hosts. The carnage was worse when the Pirates visited Miller Park. The frequent beat-downs kept Pirates fans screaming “uncle” and Bernie Brewer dizzy from riding the slide. Recall the 20-0 clinic in 2010 — the year the Pirates truly nose-dived into the tar pits of disgrace. Coincidentally, or perhaps not, that year was Hart’s most productive year. Yes, the lowliest days of the Pirates under the current regime is, to many, synonymous with players like Corey Hart battering Pirates’ pitchers who were only household names in their own houses.

Times have changed. Fielder plays in the Junior Circuit now and Braun is a somewhat diminished player, and figure. And Bernie Brewer hasn’t been sliding down so much as looking up — at the Jolly Roger. What’s more, Corey Hart is back at PNC Park. But this time he didn’t ram down the gates as a conquering force. He was invited in.

Okay, let’s spotlight the elephant in the room first. Corey Hart was a flop in his two-year — 2013-2014 — stint as a member of the Seattle Mariners. He missed the entire 2013 season due to knee surgery. In 2014, in 255 plate appearance, he batted .203/.271/.319 with 6 home runs and 21 RBI. He was designated for assignment on 9/29/14. Three months later the Pirates signed Hart to a one-year/$2.5 million contract.

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Corey Hart swung a destructive bat not long ago, particularly in the 2008, and 2010-2012, seasons. As mentioned, Pirates fans may begrudgingly remember all-to-well. Consider the numbers: 2008-.268/.300/.459 with 20 home runs and 91 RBI. 2010-.283/.340/.525 with 31 home runs and 102 RBI. 2011-.285/.356/.510 with 26 home runs and 63 RBI. 2012-.270/.344/.507 with 30 home runs and 83 RBI. Hart was an All-Star in 2008 and 2010, when he finished 25th in NL MVP voting in 2010.

Hart will be 33 years-old before Opening Day 2015. No sane-minded gambler would bet the family jewels that Hart can, or will, repeat his 2008-2012 plateau. However, don’t assume that Hart’s career is beyond its expiration date, two surgically-repaired knees be damned. Baseball is full of surprises. How many players have been dumped at the junkyard, only to reemerge as highly useable parts. Pirates fans can surely think of in-house examples within the past few years alone: Francisco Liriano, Mark Melancon, Vance Worley, etc. Hart may not win the Comeback Player of the Year Award, but hey, the award exists for a reason. In fact, the CPOTY Award is the least predictable for reasons in and of itself.

Hart will likely start the year in a first base platoon with embattled 2013 All-Star, and displaced third basemen, Pedro Alvarez. Alvarez’s struggles in 2014 — both at the plate and in the field — have been discussed ad infinitum.  But for good measure — .231/.312/.405, with 25 errors and a -0.5 dWAR. In short, he went from Silver Slugger in 2013 to bronze bust in 2014. But Alvarez, 27, still possesses so much unbridled power that he should, and will, start the 2015 campaign at first base, at least against righties. Assuming he unleashes some of that power consistently, and handles the first base adequately, Hart’s role will likely be limited to facing lefties, either as a starter or in late inning situations.

A worst-case scenario would likely grant Hart’s best chance to shine — if Alvarez is either injured long-term or plays so poorly that he spends more time near the Gatorade container than the first base bag. The Pirates were successful in 2014 despite Alvarez being relatively feckless in the batter’s box, and seemingly aiming to either plunk a zeppelin or nail a groundhog with his throws to first base. Even the lackluster primary first base platoon of Gaby Sanchez and Ike Davis couldn’t derail a second consecutive playoff run.

Of course, the hope for the Pirates and their fan base is that Alvarez consistently flashes his offensive prowess and is adequate in the field. If that’s the case, Hart should still get a fair amount of starts at first base, and plenty of plate appearances (for sake of reference, the right-handed batting Sanchez had 290 plate appearances in 2014). In short, if Hart can manage a passable reproduction of his prime years, the Pirates will be well represented at first base.

Yes, Corey Hart was a formidable villain during the Pirates ugliest years in recent memory. Even now, he is a ghost from games best forgotten. However, Hart may someday be remembered as a meaningful cog in a highly successful season, too. Good thing that Hart is through the gates.

Next: Pittsburgh Pirates' dilemma: who should start Opening Day

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