To say that the Mariners should have seen this coming is an understatement. Though we advocated signing Corey Hart before it happened -- starting with an individual profile and moving into the off-season plan -- it was never expected that the Mariners should run him in the outfield on a regular basis, let alone every day after missing a year with double knee injuries. The knees have been fine-ish so far, but now it's his forearm, along with his back, that are giving him troubles. Being out of baseball for a year and trying to ramp it up again is guaranteed to come with some growing pains, but Hart hasn't been concerned, via Bob Dutton.
"It’s always been a process for me to find a comfort level and timing at the plate in spring training," he said. "I told them coming in, ‘Don’t expect a lot because it’s going to take a little while to figure out what I’m doing.’
"My best years have been after my worst springs," Hart said. "So I’m definitely not worried too much. And usually my best springs are my worst years."
Still, Hart has missed the past several games with the forearm issue, and he's out of the lineup again today. His body just isn't quite ready yet, and today Lloyd McClendon confirmed what we should have been told from the beginning.
McClendon says Hart likely to spend much time at DH early in season. Likely means Almonte/Saunders in CF, Saunders/Morrison/Romero in RF.
— Bob Dutton (@TNT_Mariners) March 23, 2014
It's a long ways away from where McClendon was a month ago when he said he hoped Hart could play 145 games in the outfield. Now Hart will, if he doesn't start the year on the DL, work on getting his hitting right before testing his body.
It's where he belongs, and if he had to get nicked up to end up there, that's just fine. Anybody that saw Hart in right field during spring training could see that he was still very ginger and cautious on his knees, and asking for regular playing time in right is asking for an extended DL stay or some very bad defense.
This goes in line with what I always wanted to see from Hart, going back to November:
Hart missed the entire 2013 season with knee injuries and simply can't be relied on to play in the outfield anymore. On the other hand, Hart is right-handed, doesn't post severe splits, and was a productive hitter through his age 30 season, posting a 124 wRC+. Hart will now be 32 and is coming off two injuries, so this move isn't without risk. The Mariners can compensate by restricting him to primarily DH,
So where does that leave the rest of the team? Somehow still inflexible but with plenty of options. The only player out of options is Hector Noesi, so any of the current crop could be sent down to AAA, including Logan Morrison, who is now the odd man out. Morrison will most likely be starting in right field against some righties, but he's almost certainly not going to be an everyday player. It's not inconceivable that he could begin in AAA, but unlikely -- it doesn't seem feasible that the M's would ship their new toy south without giving him some at-bats first. He's starting in right field today, so the simplest switch may be the most likely one.
As Dutton notes, the outfield situation is now quite complicated, and it doesn't appear that any outfielder is going to be in true everyday kind of role. With 5 players now rotating into 3 spots, the player who seems most secure is presumably Dustin Ackley, though he'll be probably spelled by Michael Saunders at times as well. Unless somebody truly breaks out, it doesn't seem like anybody is projected to play over 140 games as the roster currently stands.
If the Mariners get a rotation that works for them, Hart very well may remain at designated hitter, and he probably should. The first base situation will resolve itself by June, as either Justin Smoak or Logan Morrison should rise to the top. If the outfield situation becomes far worse than possibly imagined, then Smoak or Morrison -- both with options remaining -- can catch a ticket to Tacoma while the team attempts to replace them with their imaginary outfield depth.
I say this with caution, but this should be the end of the Kendrys Morales song and dance. While there wasn't really any room for him before, there definitely isn't now -- and unless he gives the Mariners a super duper bargain, he's likely to stay unemployed when the season begins. That money that seemed bookmarked for only Morales will presumably go back into the vault, unspent as the Mariners yet again underwhelm on their assurances that the budget would increase.
Corey Hart is not an outfielder at this stage in his career. It's a good thing that he's locked into DH to start the season, but it also exposes how horribly inflexible this Mariners roster is. The Mariners failed at obtaining both outfield upgrades and pitching depth this offseason, and it shouldn't be a shock that less-than-ideal things happen in spring to expose those weaknesses. Time's running out for them to remedy their roster faults, if it hasn't already.