The Milwaukee Brewers salvaged what was a disappointing 2012 season by playing themselves into the NL wild-card race by the end of the season.
The Brew Crew went 18-10 in September. That surge pushed Milwaukee to within 1.5 games of the St. Louis Cardinals for the NL's second wild-card spot, as of September 21.
However, that's as close as the Brewers got before falling back and eventually finishing five games behind in the wild-card race and 14 games out of first place in the NL Central.
Part of the Brewers' late-season success can be attributed to Corey Hart's second-half performance.
After the All-Star break, Milwaukee's first baseman hit .292 with an .875 OPS, 14 home runs and 45 RBI. Along with Ryan Braun and Aramis Ramirez, the Brewers had a formidable offensive trio in the middle of their batting order.
Unfortunately, Milwaukee learned on Friday that it will be without Hart for at least the first six weeks of the 2013 season. As reported by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Tom Haudricourt, Hart will undergo surgery on his right knee to repair what was described as "a defect in the joint surface."
Hart required surgery on the same knee a year ago to repair cartilage damage, but was able to recover soon enough to play 149 games last season.
Overall, he hit .270 with an .841 OPS, 35 doubles, 30 home runs and 83 RBI. His home run total was second on the Brewers' roster to Braun, who led the NL with 47 homers.
Hart experienced swelling in the right knee during his offseason workouts. An MRI exam revealed what Brewers team doctors compared to "a pothole in a road that must be filled in."
Further description of the work that has to be done on Hart's knee includes debriding the joint surface (removing dead, damaged or infected tissue) "to make it bleed and heal in," along with repairing a small meniscal tear that was also discovered.
That sounds like a pretty significant repair to his knee. While Hart considers himself a fast healer—and showed himself to be one last year—this procedure might take longer to recover from. He won't be able to put weight on the knee for six weeks. Hart will need three to four months to recover from the surgery and is expected to be out until at least May.
While that means the Brewers could still have Hart contributing to their lineup for four months, not having a player for one to two months is a rather significant loss.
Some might argue that missing games in April—and possibly May—is better than missing them in August and September, but losing games that the Brewers could have won with Hart in the lineup could affect their place in the standings, regardless of when they're played.
How will the Brewers fill first base until Hart returns? The first option will likely be Mat Gamel, who was slated to replace Prince Fielder at the position last year. Gamel played in only 21 games, however, before tearing the ACL in his right knee and missing the rest of the 2012 season.
Gamel's injury forced the Brewers to move Hart from right field to first base.
While Gamel hasn't had sustained success in the majors yet, he's been productive in the minor leagues. His career average in the minors is .304 with a .376 on-base percentage and .873 OPS. He's also slugged 105 home runs with 503 RBI in seven seasons.
Gamel, 27, would also provide a left-handed bat to a lineup that's almost exclusively right-handed, except for right fielder Norichika Aoki.
Of course, until Gamel proves he can be productive, the Brewers are a better team with Hart in the lineup, regardless of which side of the plate he hits from.
Another option the Brewers could explore—though perhaps not so early in the season—is first-base prospect Hunter Morris. Morris is Milwaukee's No. 4 prospect, as ranked by Baseball America. Last year with Double-A Huntsville, he hit .303 with a .920 OPS, 40 doubles, 28 home runs and 113 RBI in 571 plate appearances.
However, the consensus on Morris as explained by experts—such as Minor League Ball's John Sickels—is that Morris still needs to work on his batting skills and cut down on his strikeouts. He would very likely benefit from a full season in Triple-A.
With those two players, the Brewers will likely be able to get by at first base without Hart for a couple of months. The team needs to find out whether Gamel can be a major league hitter anyway.
But Hart's injury could hurt the Brewers in another fashion—if the team isn't able to contend this season. Hart is in the final year of his contract and could be an appealing trade candidate for any team looking for power from first base or a corner outfield spot.
That is, if those teams aren't concerned about a player who's suffered two serious knee injuries in two years.
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