At first glance, Corey Hart is pretty much the prototypical Tampa Bay Rays free agent signing.
Having missed the entire 2013 season due to knee issues, something that is still not 100 percent according to Jim Bowden of ESPN.com, the 31-year-old slugger seems primed for the type make-good contract that Tampa Bay has often utilized to fill out areas of needs on their roster.
That hole has most prominent at first base in recent years, and with Sean Rodriguez currently listed as the team’s first baseman on the depth chart, it goes without says that they’re going to need someone to take over sooner rather than later.
In a deal with the Rays, Hart would get his chance to rebuild his name value with a good 2014 and do it with a AL East contender to boot, before presumably leaving town on a long-term contract that’s too rich for the Rays’ blood. The situation is there, and the job is there in Tampa Bay; the only thing that’s left is for the two to get together and hammer out some numbers, yes?
Well, it might end up being a little more complicated than that.
For one, there are legitimate concerns over Hart’s long-term health. A make-good deal only works if the player is able to take the field to make it happen, and while he’s expected to be 100 percent cleared in the coming days, Tampa Bay doesn’t have a whole lot of information to go on as far as how his knee will affect his game, particularly his power.
The team has gone after bounce-back candidates in the past, but most of them have been veterans with demonstrated upside coming off poor seasons like James Loney, Yunel Escobar and Kelly Johnson. They’ve been taken the injury risk before, most recently with reliever Jesse Crain, but that’s not exactly a vote of confidence for the case of signing Hart.
Admittedly, the risk might not even be the biggest issue if there weren’t other teams in pursuit of the player. Hart himself has suggested that at least three other teams have expressed interest, meaning that his upside might actually mean he doesn’t have to wait to sign a multi-year contract.
Should a first-base needy team like the Colorado Rockies decide, for example, that two years plus an option is something they can handle, it would essentially price the Rays out of sweepstakes.
Coupled with the fact the Hart has hinted at his preference to take a hometown discount with the Milwaukee Brewers even on a one-year deal, and it’s evident that the Rays will have their work cut out for them unless they’re ready to offer up a mix of dollars and terms that’s probably beyond their usual comfort zone.
It’s a little unfortunate really, because there aren’t a whole lot of better places for players like Hart to rebuild his value than Tampa Bay. Should he ends up signing there, the Rays will immediately fill a power void at first that not even re-signing Loney can offer. Sure, there are other possibilities in FA and in the trade route when it comes to first basemen, but they don’t offer quite the same cost vs. upside benefits.
As the team is finding out though, power comes at a premium these days regardless of position — even if it hasn’t been seen since 2012.