By Bob Dutton The News Tribune
PEORIA, Ariz.. — It caused a bit of a stir a few days ago, here in Seattle Mariners’ camp, when manager Lloyd McClendon touted a best-case scenario in which Corey Hart could play 145 games in right field.
That’s the same Hart who missed all of last season in Milwaukee while recovering from major surgeries on both knees before signing a one-year deal with the M’s in December as a free agent.
So … “I talked to him about that,” Hart said, “and I can’t say ‘No,’ right now. Right now, I feel good. That’s what I told him: ‘Right now, I feel I could go out and easily do it.’”
He’s also realistic.
“We’ll find out once we start playing spring games,” Hart said. “I’ll try to go out there every day … and then we’ll see if I can do this or can’t do this. I think I will be able to do it. The training staff here, these guys are great.”
The Mariners open a 33-game Cactus League schedule Thursday with their annual charity game against complex co-tenant San Diego at Peoria Stadium.
A healthy Hart, one capable of logging regular duty in right field, would enable several tumblers in the Mariners’ roster to click more smoothly into place.
It would ease the first base/designated hitter logjam where Justin Smoak and Logan Morrison are expected to spend most of their time. (Morrison will likely still draw some outfield duty.)
McClendon has already ticketed Dustin Ackley for left field, so if Hart can play right, that positions Michael Saunders and Abraham Almonte in a battle for one spot, center, instead of both being penciled into the lineup.
Hart is the Mariners’ only proven right-handed power bat in a lefty-heavy lineup … assuming he regains the form that saw him average 29 homers and 83 RBI from 2010-12 with the Brewers.
“He’s very important to this club,” McClendon said. “As we sit right now, hitting (fourth) behind Robinson (Cano), if he’s healthy, he should have a real big year.”
With all of that at stake, it’s no surprise that McClendon is taking a cautious approach with Hart, who turns 32 on March 24.
“Lloyd has been on me regularly to make sure I pace myself,” Hart said. “Just go hard when I need to. But I’ve been able to everything without restrictions.
“Again, the test will be when we start playing games, and how I recover from game to game. But so far, it’s been good.”
General manager Jack Zduriencik was the scouting director in Milwaukee when the Brewers selected Hart in the 2000 draft. It was that familiarity that prompted the Mariners to gamble on Hart making a full recovery.
“I know he was a pretty good right fielder when he was healthy,” Zduriencik said. “We’re going to have to wait and see.”
At this point, though …
“I haven’t had any issues,” Hart said. “We’re being cautious. Not too cautious. I’m doing everything, but I’m being aware; I’ll do something 100 percent, and then let off on the throttle a little bit.
“So far, man, it’s been good.”