Corey Hart and Optimism

There was word Tuesday night that Corey Hart was closing in on a decision, and while Hart didn’t figure anything out Tuesday, it didn’t take him long Wednesday to settle on a new employer. For a year, Hart will play for the Mariners, and according to Ken Rosenthal, his deal is a lot like Mike Napoli‘s deal a year ago, in that he’ll get something like a $5-million base, with $8 million or so available in incentives. There’s no long-term commitment, and the incentives also mitigate the risk. Hart might be the first offensive player ever to go to Seattle to try to re-establish his value.

By and large, my exposure to baseball fans is on the Internet, and they tend to be smarter than average. I’m also familiar with Internet analysts, and there seems to be a consensus here: the Mariners did well in signing Hart for what they did. I don’t disagree with the conclusion, but it also makes me wonder about a bias that might exist. They say the Mariners are getting a good deal in signing a guy who just missed an entire season, having both his knees operated on.

Most of us love upside and we love rolling the dice. We love looking for potential bargains, and we love highlighting players who might have injury issues. It’s this perspective that makes the Hart deal look so good. The same perspective led people to like the Ben Sheets contract, and it’s why people have remained interested in players like Erik Bedard and Rich Harden. If you have to pick between talent and durability, you go for talent, right? Because, who knows? Why pay the premium for someone more “proven”?

If you allow me to defer to authority for a moment, the league allowed Hart to sign this contract with Seattle, as a free agent. Nobody else was willing to pay much more, if more at all. Other teams, therefore, must not see this as a tremendous bargain, except maybe for some teams with absolutely no roster space. You’d think there has to be some significance in there. Realistically, I think there are two things going on.

One, I think a lot of teams are conservative about these kinds of things. They recognize Hart’s ability, but you can’t overlook a guy not playing. So you could have a market overreaction to a guy being sidelined. At the same time, I think we tend to be the opposite of conservative, recognizing Hart’s ability while not thinking enough about the downside. The fan projections we’ve had here demonstrated that people tend to be pretty optimistic, and we probably don’t give enough consideration to the ways in which things can go wrong. So you could have a fan under-reaction to a guy being sidelined.

Hart’s defense could be worse, and maybe he’ll be limited to DH duty. Maybe the knee issues will nag at him, forcing him to miss time or taking a toll on his swing. No player in baseball is a sure thing, but Hart is less of a sure thing than average. This matters. Yet I am still in favor, overall. I still like the move, and I suspect Hart’s market was limited to just a handful of teams, some of whom weren’t comfortable with the idea of potentially shelling out $13 million.

There’s nothing we can do with Hart’s 2013. All he did was get cut open and rehab, and we have no way of knowing what that’s going to mean. So we have to go back to the last time Hart was healthy, and we can examine the 2010-2012 window. Over those three years, Hart was one hell of an offensive weapon.

Out of 230 qualified players, Hart ranked tied for 27th in wRC+. His company was Billy Butler, Joe Mauer, and David Wright, and he was one point back from Shin-Soo Choo and Carlos Gonzalez. By isolated power, Hart ranked 15th, a point behind Mark Reynolds. For that window, Hart was one step back from being an elite-level slugger, and that window closed just a year ago. Not because Hart went on to perform worse; because Hart went on to not perform at all. There’s no certain deterioration of skill, so the upside here is that Hart is one of the better hitters in baseball, again. It’s by no means unreasonable.

Of course, you’d never sign Hart for his defense, especially now that his knees have been looked at from the inside. He might well be a DH. But, you’d never sign Choo for his defense. You’d never sign Nelson Cruz for his defense. Choo projects for the same wRC+ that Hart put up over those three years. Cruz projects considerably worse. Choo is looking for a nine-figure contract, and Cruz is looking for something in the upper eight figures. Both those guys have draft picks attached. Hart might turn out just as good, or better, in 2014, and while that’s an obvious gamble, it comes with no long-term commitment and no lost draft flexibility. Hart’s an upside play that won’t clutter the books down the road.

It’s the right kind of move for a team that’s going for it, but that might not be close enough yet. Choo would be the sexier get for Seattle, but then that would be another massive contract on the books, and there’s no guarantee this is going to work out. Hart doesn’t spoil anything beyond 2014, and while that also means he’s not under contract in the event he’s really good, then the Mariners can at least extend a qualifying offer. The Mariners need to improve now without sacrificing much long-term value, so Hart is precisely the right kind of target.

The Mariners added Hart almost simultaneous to adding Logan Morrison, and that makes things confusing with Justin Smoak already around. At present, it looks like one of Hart or Morrison would have to play in the outfield, and just last year the Mariners fielded some real shipwrecks. But it’s only still December, so we don’t know what else the team might do between now and the spring. They could turn around and deal Morrison, or they could move Smoak. We can’t just assume a subpar defensive alignment, and this is why general managers complain about moves being evaluated in isolation. Sometimes you have to wait to see what else might go down.

I don’t know what’ll go down in Seattle yet. I do know that Hart looks like a good, virtually risk-free roll of the dice. The addition of Morrison makes things at least temporarily weird, but that’s its own subject, independent of the Hart pick-up. This can exist as a fine move within a suboptimal plan.

We hoped you liked reading Corey Hart and Optimism by Jeff Sullivan!

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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Chris from Bothell
Chris from Bothell

“We can’t just assume a subpar defensive alignment”

Raul Ibanez, Jason Bay and Michael Morse look up from their respective front porches, stare contemplatively into the middle distance, then resume whittling.