Kevin Hart represents one-third of the return on Josh Grabow and Tom Gorzelanny (the other two-thirds being Josh Harrison and Jose Ascanio). He’s a study, six-foot-four, 220-something pound righty out of the University of Maryland. Originally drafted by the Baltimore Orioles in 2004, the Cubs acquired Hart in late 2006 to complete the Freddie Bynum deal. That deal looks worse in retrospect since at the time, Hart was 23 and coming off a rough stint in High-A. At least Bynum runs fast.
Hart pitched 148 innings while boasting a FIP of 4.65 and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 1.88 despite striking out more than seven per nine innings. The Cubs ignored his struggles and promoted him to Double-A where he would find his groove, notching a KSO/BB ratio of 3.41 in 102 innings. They would then promote him to Triple-A Iowa, where he’s spent most of the last two seasons, laying in wait for a rotation or bullpen spot to permanently fill.
That’s not to say Hart hasn’t had some chances. In 2008, the Cubs used him in 21 games in a mop-up role. He performed so-so, while battling with control issues. He spent last July in the Cubs’ rotation, pitching rather poorly and walking more batters than he fanned. His Pirates’ tenure wasn’t too much better, with him posting a similarly poor FIP of 5.16 in what amounted to 53 innings.
So, interestingly enough, CHONE projects Hart to post a 4.19 FIP this year, despite a career 4.89 mark in roughly 120 innings. Is there reason to be that optimistic? I think so. Baseball America ranked Hart as the Cubs’ sixth best prospect in January 2009, citing his nastiness as a reliever. It’s too soon for the Pirates to give up on Hart’s starting career though. He throws fastballs in the low-to-mid 90s while mixing in a cutter and a particularly effective curve that rests on the crest of the high-70s. This has resulted in a fair amount of missed bats (78.2% contact rate) and groundballs (46% grounders).
Hart’s issue has been control. He’s finding the zone at a career rate of 45.5%. Of qualified starters last year, only Joe Saunders (43.8%) pitched within the zone less often. That’s not always a bad thing though, as long as batters are convinced to chase often. To his credit, Hart has tempted batters to swing nearly 30% of the time while making contact with those pitches 58% of the time. That’s a profile similar to Chad Billingsley and John Lackey. Someone is going to take that comparison and run with it, but the difference is that Billingsley and Lackey can find the zone when they want to, something Hart needs to do given his handful of walks per nine.
The 27-year-old figures to spend this year in the Pirates’ rotation. He might not be a sexy name, or a hot prospect anymore, but Hart could still become a useful pitcher if he starts throwing strikes again.