Once again, the Tampa Bay Rays have a hole at first base among their priorities to address this offseason. In 2013, James Loney became the Rays’ latest low-cost signing at first base to deliver a breakout season, but he reestablished himself so well that he could reel in a two-year deal through free agency this offseason. The Rays would love to have Loney return in 2014, but he will likely be out of their price range. So to whom will the Rays turn in 2014 to play first base? One option seems to be Corey Hart.
The Rays have already been rumored to be interested in Hart and for good reason–from 2007 to 2012, Hart was a consistently good player for the Milwaukee Brewers. Hart began his career with solid but inconsistent play from 2006 to 2009, but in 2010 and 2011, he established himself as a topflight hitter. In 2010, he produced a line of .283/.340/.525 (130 OPS+) with 31 home runs and 102 RBI and he followed it up with a .285/.356/.510 line (133 OPS+ with 26 homers in 2011. In 2012, Hart took a small step back, but he still managed a .270/.334/.507 line with 30 home runs. Hart stood out for his power and solid ability to hit for average and get on base, and he OPS’d over .800 each season against right-handed pitching while absolutely destroying lefties. But as right as Hart’s career was looking as bright as ever, injuries put everything into question. Hart underwent knee surgery in the 2012 offseason and again in June of 2013, and he enters free agency not having played since 2012. The other side of the coin, though, is that those injuries put a player as talented as Hart right into the Rays’ price range.
Hart, though, does not come without his faults. Hart was an everyday outfielder until 2012 when a combination of knee problems and bad defense forced him to transition first base. His defense at first doesn’t particular appear to be very strong at first in his short time there. Fangraphs had him at –5 defensive runs saved and a UZR/150 of –11.9 in 849.1 innings at first base in 2012. There has also been a discouraging trend from his bat the past few seasons. His strikeout rate has been increasing over the years and was at a career high 24.3% in 2012. When we are talking about a player who will be 32 in March and aleady has injuries to overcome, signs of decline are not a good sign. But the Rays can’t be too picky, and the potential reward on a Hart signing remains considerable.
Hart will most likely be looking for a one-year deal to reestablish his value and show that his knee is healthy before hitting the market again next offseason. The Rays should be among his most ardent pursuers. His overall offensive track record is solid and he could be a great middle of the order bat in the Rays’ lineup. The Rays have gotten great years out of Loney, Jeff Keppinger, and Casey Kotchman, but none of them are remotely as feared of a hitter for the Rays as Hart would be. The Rays could also offer him days off from the field by using him as the DH, which could help keep him healthy. A one-year deal in the ^4 or $7 million range would mitigate the risk on the Rays’ part and could help set Hart to cash in for a multi year deal in 2015. The question, though, is going to be how receptive Hart would be to come.
The Rays will make thier offer to Hart, but there is only so high that they can go. Hart could be fairly expensive, even on a one-year deal, with all the perceived interest he has already received. Can the Rays gave Hart a competitive enough offer? Non-financial concerns will be just as important. Hart has shown a desire to return to Milwaukee, even willing to take a “hometown discount” to return. It should also be noted that Hart and his family currently live in Arizona, giving teams with spring training in Arizona an edge. The Rays are not the Brewers and they play spring training in Florida, so that puts them at a disadvantage from the start. Then again, the Rays have one thing to offer Hart that no one else can: a proven track record of taking struggling first baseman and helping them to deliver their best seasons yet. Hart could be next, and the reward for both him and the Rays could more significant than ever before. However, are Hart and the Rays motivated enough to facilitate a deal?