Corey Hart was drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers in the 11th round in 2000, out of high school in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Drafted as a first baseman, he wasn't a hot prospect on draft day, but the Brewers liked his height (6-6), power potential, and athleticism. He held his own in rookie ball, hitting .287/.332/.366 in 216 at-bats for Ogden in the Pioneer League. That was back in the STATS days when I didn't put many short-season players in the book. Nowadays he'd get a Grade C "with higher potential" rating, pending additional data.
Hart returned to Ogden in 2001 and hit .340/.395/.542 with 11 homers and 14 steals in 262 at-bats. I did put him in the book in '02, giving him a Grade C rating, noting his strong performance, power potential, and unusual speed for a first baseman. I also noted that his plate discipline was erratic and that the Brewers didn't have a great track record at the time helping similar players develop.
After an impressive spring camp, Hart skipped low Class A and went directly to the California League in 2002. He hit .288/.356/.573 with 22 homers and 24 steals in 100 games for High Desert, then .266/.340/.362 in 28 games for Double-A Huntsville. The High Desert numbers were inflated by the environment, but he was just 20 years old, had skipped a level, and wasn't completely overmatched after being promoted to Double-A. His plate discipline needed work, but I gave him a Grade B, noting that "there is a lot to like here."
Hart spent all of 2003 at Huntsville, hitting .302/.340/.467. He hit just 13 homers, but knocked 40 doubles and stole 25 bases. His plate discipline was an issue with a 28/101/493 BB/K/AB ratio, but it didn't seem to hurt him much. He has an unusually compact swing for such a tall player. He played third base that year, as the Brewers were trying to figure out how to fit him into the future lineup, but I projected that he would end up in an outfield corner. I gave him another Grade B and rated him as the Number 42 hitting prospect in baseball.
2004 was a solid season: he hit .281/.342/.485 with 15 homers and 17 steals for Triple-A Indianapolis. He increased his walk rate significantly, and moved to the outfield full-time. I gave him yet another Grade B, writing that I didn't "think that Hart was going to be a star, but if he can maintain decent command of the strike zone, he should be a solid player." He just missed the Top 50.
A return engagement in Triple-A in 2005 resulted in a .308/.377/.536, 17 homer, 31 steal mark for Nashville. I gave him another Grade B, noting that Hart just needed a chance to play and he'd be a darkhorse Rookie of the Year candidate. As you know he finally got to play in '06 and '07, and indeed he's done quite well. Hart is a career .284/.339/.505 hitter at the major league level through 800 at-bats.
While I don't think he will ever be a walk machine, he doesn't need to be. He doesn't strike out that much for a guy with power, and I like his multi-skills. When Hart was just starting out he was compared to Richie Sexson due to his size and wingspan. I don't think Hart will produce the kind of home run power Sexson did at his peak, but Hart is faster and move valuable defensively, and he does have some untapped power upside. It's also possible he could stay where he is right now in the power department but add some additional batting average instead. Either way, I think Hart still has room for improvement, and given the fact that he's already very good as it is, he could end up having some outstanding seasons heading forward.
Basically there is nothing not to like here. If Hart merely stays where he is right now, he'll be a very good player. If he improves in some way, boosting additional power, or adding more batting average and OBP, or both, he's a legitimate star.
Hart hit .268/.300/.459 with 20 homers in '08, struggling with his plate discipline (27/109 BB/K). He improved that last year (43/92), but his production remained about the same, his OPS+ going from 98 to just 100. This year he's having the breakout at .290/.351/.577, leading the NL with 22 homers. Plate discipline is still not his strength, but the power burst has given him a 147 OPS+. The arc of his career, as measured by WAR, is interesting: 0.4 in half a season in '06, 4.3 in '07, 1.1 in '09, 0.7 in ‘0, but up to 2.5 in half a season this year, reversing the slippage trend very strongly.
His comp list, pre-season.
SIM SCORE: Ivan Calderon, Kirk Gibson, Jacque Jones, Rocco Baldelli, Felipe Alou, George Foster, Reggie Sanders, Willie Kirkland, Bill Nicholson, and Rip Repulski.
PECOTA: Claudell Washington, Alex Rios, Al Cowens, Lloyd Moseby, Moises Alou, Garry Matthews, Tony Oliva, Preston Wilson, Al Martin, and Willie Kirkland. Ellis Burks is 11th.
No bad players on these lists, and several really good ones, but no Hall of Famers either. Many of them did not age well.
Hart is 28 this year, a classic point on the age curve for a power outburst campaign. With two and a half months left to play, we don't know exactly how 2010 will look in the end for Hart, but I suspect that this will be the best season of his career.