Running a mediocre mid-market team is hard. That sounds like snark, but I'm serious. When you have $150 million to play with every year, like the Yankees or Red Sox, you can fill just about every hole with a free agent and then win 90 games. If you're in the $50-$60 million range, everybody knows you have to rebuild.
But the middle is trickier. Think about the 2008 Brewers: They had the advantage of several above-average below market guys, so money could be spent filling holes, on guys like Mike Cameron and Salomon Torres (and ultimately C.C. Sabathia), and the team could afford to keep a great player or two around, as was the case with Ben Sheets.
That's the framework we have to use to evaluate Corey Hart's deal. It's not hard to make the case that Hart could be worth his $26.5 million, while of course it remains to be seen how he'll produce for the next three years. That much money should buy about five or six wins on the open market, and I'd guess he'll be worth about that. But given that the 2011, '12, and '13 Brewers will only have payroll space for so many guys priced at open-market levels, should Hart be one of them?
The deal in a vacuum
The structure of the deal, it appears, is a $1MM signing bonus, $6.5MM next year, $9MM in 2012, and $10MM in 2013. Because baseball salaries drift ever further upwards, those numbers will feel a little lower come '12 and '13, especially if the economy rebounds. In comparing the yearly salaries to current players, it may be more helpful to think of it as $8.5MM and $9MM for the last two years.
At what is essentially $9MM per year, Hart is being paid as a two-win player, or slightly better than one. In Wins Above Replacement (WAR), as in everything else, Hart has been crazily unpredictable. This year, he's been worth 2.8 WAR, putting him on pace for about 4 by the end of the season. His breakout season in 2007 was worth 4.9, but the next two years were 0.9 and 1.4.
So who is the real Corey Hart? I wish I had an answer to that question. His strikeout and walk rates haven't changed much. His line drive percentage has stayed the same, so this year's boost in BABIP may be attributable only to luck. He is hitting more fly balls, and more of them are leaving the park--there's probably something skill-based going on there.
So, weaselly as it is, I have to conclude that the "real" Corey is somewhere in between this year's All-Star and the 2008-09 disappointment. The most recent CHONE projections forecast him as a 2.4 win player (per season), and that seems about right to me. He'll probably be "worth" his contract, but it's unlikely that the deal will turn out to be a major coup for Milwaukee.
The deal in context
That brings us back to the bigger picture. The fact that Doug Melvin held on to both Fielder and Hart at the deadline suggests that he may think the team is set up to contend next year. If so, perhaps he did everyone a favor by saving a bit of money on Hart's last arbitration year.
In the long term, the bigger question is what I opened this post with. A mid-market team is going to pay the going free-agent rate for some of its players. If the Brewers contend in, say, 2012, that will be the case in Milwaukee. But should Hart be among them?
This is a very difficult question to answer, since it depends on how certain prospects develop and who is available in the '11 and '12 free agent classes. A definitive analysis would have so many "maybes" that it would be almost worthless. But my gut says that Hart is not worth market rate to the Brewers.
Here are two of the reasons why. First off, he plays an unimportant defensive position. To me, right field, left field, and first base are kind of like the bullpen. If you can get a super-premium player (like Fielder or Braun), you should--it's like having Mariano Rivera pitching the 9th inning. It's worth the big bucks.
But Hart is not a super-premium player. Just as a good GM can usually find a solid 7th- or 8th-inning guy for peanuts, he can find a corner outfielder able to do the job. Even some rich teams believe this. Over the last 10 or 12 years, the Yankees have had some stars at 1B, LF, and RF, but they've also had 90-win teams with very pedestrian players there.
If it turns out that the Brewers do need a right fielder going into the 2012 season, there will probably be one on the open market. Sometimes it's hard to find a solid catcher or shortstop, but there are always decent corner outfielders available.
The other reason is that with Braun locked in to left field, the Crew has blocked a lot of potential paths for prospects. Mat Gamel may be a corner outfielder. Brett Lawrie may have his future there. Heck, if Caleb Gindl keeps advancing, he'll be stuck in a corner. If Fielder gets swapped for prospects in the offseason, there may well be more guys in the system who can't stick at their primary position.
An overload of quality players at a certain position can be written off as a good problem to have, but it's a less good problem in a corner. Except for super-premium players, teams have what they need--every other club (even the Astros now) has good-hitting prospects drifting down the defensive spectrum. That makes the trade value of a right fielder less than you might think. It's rare that someone is desperate for a right fielder.
All together now
The point isn't that Lawrie is blocked. Or that $9MM to Hart will hamstring the Brewers chances of signing somebody good in the next two years. (Though it might be the straw that breaks Mat Gamel's back.)
The point is that Doug Melvin locked himself into a commitment he didn't need to make. Hart is not the face of this team, and his presence isn't going to sell 250,000 more tickets. He's a complementary player, and first half aside, that's his future.
In 2012, it's unlikely we'll point to the Corey Hart deal as the reason for another 3rd-place finish. Maybe Corey will have another .290/.330/.500 season and appear to be worth a bit more than the money he's paid. But maybe we'll have parted with a prospect by then, or left him to rot in Triple-A. Or perhaps we'll have passed on 2012's Bobby Abreu, an all-star player available for $5MM on a one-year deal.
Mid-market GMs have more freedom than their small-market counterparts, but they still must do whatever they can to retain their flexibility. They don't have enough money to solve every problem by writing a check, so they must find other ways to build contending teams. By locking up a pretty good player at the going market rate, Doug Melvin just cost himself a fair bit of flexibility. And he doesn't have much to show for it.