Corey Hart, seemingly on the trading block until a last-minute wrist injury, has reportedly been resigned by the Brewers for $26.5 million dollars for 2011-2013. Assuming $4.5 million dollars for a marginal win next season, a moderate seven percent inflation on that amount per season, a typical half-win a season decline, and also taking into account that Hart had one year of team-controlled arbitration left (and thus would generally be expected to get about 80% of his open market value), the Brewers are paying Hart as if his true talent will be about 2.5 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) in 2011.
An evaluation of this deal obviously hinges a great deal on what one makes of the 28-year-old Hart’s career year at the plate in 2010 (.387 wOBA, .288/.346/.565) after being around league average at the plate in 2008 and 2009. Hart’s improvement in 2010 primarily rests on his home run explosion. His performance on balls in play hasn’t improved dramatically, and his walk rate is actually down from 2009 while his strikeouts are up. Neither is surprising given that his pre-2009 performance nor that fact that Hart is swinging at more pitches outside the zone than in 2009.
Are the home runs “for real?” Hart is hitting more fly balls than ever before, and more of them are going out of the park that ever before, too: Hart is sporting a 17.8% HR/FB rate after being under 10% in both 2008 and 2009. That in itself seems to indicate that he’s over his head in relation to his true talent, and more concrete evidence given by Greg Rybarczyk of HitTracker fame agrees. Of Hart’s 23 home runs so far this season, 10 are classified by Hit Tracker as “Just Enough.” The league-wide rate is usually a bit over 30 percent, and Hart is at about 43 percent, which Rybarczyk’s research shows generally means that the player is getting lucky and is due for regression. The projection systems agree that Hart will come back to earth, with ZiPS RoS projecting a .359 wOBA (.273/.332/.494) line, which would be about 20 runs above average over 700 PA in the current run environment. CHONE’s August update is roughly the same: .274/.332/.481.
UZR has not been impressed with Hart’s fielding lately, finding him 4.2 runs below average in 2008 and 5.7 below in 2009. Despite his career year at the plate in 2010, Hart’s 2010 is his worst season yet in the field according to UZR at -8.1 runs so far. However, Hart has had generally good speed scores and the Fans Scouting Report was impressed with him in the last couple of seasons, so we shouldn’t downgrade his defense too far — I have him at two or three runs below average over a full season. Combined with his position (-7.5 runs a season for corner outfielder), his overall defensive adjustment is about minus 10 runs a season.
Now to Hart’s likely value. We have him at +20 offense, -10 defense, with +20 NL replacement level. All that times 85% playing time equals about 2.5 Wins Above Replacement, which is about what I estimated the Brewers were paying for — a market value deal. Of course, the contract doesn’t start until 2011, so one could assume the typical decline and say the Brewers are overpaying him. Then again, it’s just half a win, and given the overall uncertainty in projections (particularly when using defensive metrics) that isn’t a big deal.
As has been said many times before, in isolation a market value deal isn’t good or bad, it’s average. When the Brewers’ organizational context is taken into account, however, this decision is a bit perplexing. A 2-2.5 WAR player like Hart may be around league average, which is useful, but he’s hardly a building block. It might indicate that the Brewers must think they are close to contending in the next couple of seasons, although given that they are more than 10 games out of first in the NL Central without much additional help coming soon that seems to be questionable. Moreover, any try for contention will require keeping both Prince Fielder and Rickie Weeks around. Fielder is due a massive arbitration award this winter (think $15 million at least), and Weeks will also be eligible for his last arbitration season (and hopefully for the Brewers they still have enough money left to give Weeks a reasonable extension if he is willing). The Brewers likely still can keep both for next season, but that will hinder other additions. Corey Hart, on the other hand, was a potential non-tender this past winter, was a trade candidate until the last minute last week, and is probably around a league average player. The Brewers will have to make some hard choices this winter when deciding how to spend their money either to rebuild (which would require them to trade Fielder sooner rather than later) or take a shot at contention in 2011. It is difficult to see how Hart’s extension, while reasonable in the abstract, fits in to either of those paths.
NB: Surely someone has made a joke about “Corey Hart” sounding like the name of a fictional 1980s teen icon, right? Yet I’ve never read a joke about it before. Did I miss it? In any case, I couldn’t figure out how to work it in here in a clever fashion. Feel free to make suggestions in the comments or Tweet them to me.