Well, the injury bug wasted no time in buying its ticket to Arizona this year as Brewers right fielder, Corey Hart, can attest to. For the 2nd straight year, Hart looks to start regular season play on the disabled list, this time due to a torn meniscus in his right knee.
The injury, which will require surgery later this week, will leave Hart sidelined for 3-4 weeks, making the timetable tight for a potential opening day start, and potentially throwing the Brewers opening day lineup (which skipper Ron Roenicke said earlier this week was set) into turmoil.
The announcement came about an hour into the Brewers first Cactus League appearance of the year, a 1-1 tie with the San Francisco Giants, which also found Rickie Weeks as a late scratch from the lineup. Weeks, who has been nursing a sore throwing shoulder, participated in throwing drills, but was scratched about 15 minutes before the first pitch along with Hart. According to Brewers assistant general manager Gord Ash, the Weeks injury is not considered to be serious.
The Hart injury does bring to light several questions which the Brewers will now need to answer in the next several weeks. For one, who will start in right field on opening day? As I have mentioned in previous articles, I fully anticipate that Japanese outfielder Norichika Aoki will be able to transition and will be ready in time to take a starting role if needed. If this indeed proves to be true, I see this as the better option over starting center fielder Carlos Gomez in the vacant spot. Why, you ask? The simple answer is, his bat.
Last season, Gomez hit an unimpressive .225 in 231 at bats with an on base percentage of .276. Compare this to Hart’s 2011 line of .285 in 492 at bats and an on base percentage of .356, and its obvious that this is a dip in offense that the club can not afford to make. Hart, along with new third baseman Aramis Ramirez, will be relied upon to close the offensive gap left in the wake of Prince Fielder’s departure. As such, Hart’s replacement will need to produce better than what Gomez did last season, even if it is only for a short period of time.
As a two-time batting champion in Japan, Aoki has proven himself to be a threat at the plate as a contact hitter with an ability to aim the ball to all fields. With many claiming that he is the best pure hitter to come out of Japan since Ichiro, the door has now opened wide for Aoki to prove it. Also, should Aoki find his way into the starting lineup, expect Rickie Weeks to move from the number one slot in the batting order to the number 5 spot, thus beefing up the heart of the order. This could also see Nyjer Morgan slot in at number one, with Aoki in the two hole.
The other problem that Hart’s injury has exposed is Milwaukee’s lack of depth at first base. The initial plan was to have Hart back up first base hopeful Mat Gamel, but now with the injury the Brewers may need to rely on Travis Ishikawa for the time being. Ishikawa, who saw no playing time in the majors in 2011, was acquired from the San Francisco Giants where he batted .265 over 4 seasons. While this may be doable for the short-term, it again highlights the problem mentioned earlier: the offensive drop off created by not having Hart in the lineup.
Finally, for those that believe that Roenicke will rush Hart back early like he did in 2011 after the Nyjer Morgan injury, I will warn you to not be overly optimistic. Hart has a history of meniscus issues, meaning that the team will be overly cautious as this most recent injury is the most severe that he has sustained to this point.
If there is a silver lining to the injury, it is this: A huge opportunity to prove themselves has now been issued to Aoki, Gomez, Gamel, and Ishikawa. The question is, who will stand up and take the call?