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Hart feels Mariners perfect choice for comeback

Outfielder signs one-year deal after missing 2013 season with knee surgeries

SEATTLE -- From the first time that Jack Zduriencik saw Corey Hart swing a bat, the Mariners general manager loved the potential of the lanky kid from Bowling Green, Ky.

It's been 13 years now, but Zduriencik well remembers when the 6-foot-6 shortstop out of Greenwood High School caught his eye at a tryout camp in Milwaukee where the Brewers brought in some of the premier prep players in the country for a pre-Draft look.

Many teams saw the tall middle infielder who was being heavily recruited to play basketball at the University of Alabama-Birmingham and weren't sure quite where to project Hart on the baseball diamond. Greenwood High isn't exactly a baseball factory. Besides Hart, the only player from the school ever drafted was pitcher Billy Oliver, a 36th-round selection by the Orioles in 1994 who never made it to the Majors.

But the Brewers took a shot then, just as Zduriencik is extending an opportunity again now after signing Hart to a one-year deal as a free agent following a pair of knee surgeries that wiped out his 2013 season.

"We had all these kids at this workout and this guy had the best swing in the whole place," recalls Zduriencik, who at the time was the Brewers' scouting director. "We took him in the 11th round that June and I was nervous as heck. I'll never forget that. I was thinking, fourth or fifth round, I'd better start talking about him.

"And our [area] scout was saying, 'No, don't worry about it. He's going to slide. He's going to slide.' And he did and we took him where we took him. But it turned out to be the best player we drafted that year, and he went on to become an All-Star."

The Brewers projected Hart as an outfielder and he wound up earning two National League All-Star berths in that role. But his path wasn't quite a straight line and Hart played first and third base in the Minors, a versatility that helped later in his career in Milwaukee and gives him added value now with the Mariners, who signed him to play the outfield, first base and designated hitter.

Even at 6-6, 235 pounds, Hart was one of the Brewers' best athletes. He stole 23 bases each season in 2007 and '08 and was versatile enough to hit leadoff for Milwaukee in 161 games over his career.

Still, a 6-6 middle infielder? Hart chuckles at the memory.

"I guess Kentucky isn't necessarily a baseball-heavy state," he said. "And I could catch it and make the throw, so I ended up being the shortstop. It worked out. I probably could have played small college at shortstop, but I don't know if that would have been my best interest."

Instead, Hart turned down the chance to play baseball or basketball in college and signed with the Brewers. And that was the end of his shortstop days.

Hart played first base for a couple years in the low Minors until realizing that avenue was blocked by Prince Fielder, so he shifted to third and was MVP of the Double-A Southern League for Huntsville in 2003 at that position.

But after the Brewers signed third baseman Wes Helms to a two-year deal, Hart's ticket to the Majors was the outfield and he debuted there in 2005 -- playing on the grass his entire career until Milwaukee needed first-base help in 2012 after Fielder's departure.

"I was nervous because I hadn't done it in so long, but after a week of playing every day, I was fine," Hart said. "I was surprised how quick it came back."

Which is why Hart will be fine wherever the Mariners decide he fits best. They'd love it if his knees are healthy enough to play the outfield, but the simultaneous acquisition of Logan Morrison and the need for a designated hitter creates several options.

Hart has never played for any team other than the Brewers, but his thoughts moved quickly to Seattle once he hit free agency. The relationship with Zduriencik as well as a longtime acquaintance with new Mariners skipper Lloyd McClendon from his managerial days in the National League opened the door.

"We didn't want to leave Arizona for Spring Training, so them being in Peoria put them in the top five automatically," Hart said. "Then knowing Jack real well moved them up. And then they signed Lloyd, so everything kind of kept pushing them up toward the top.

"They worked out to be one of my top two choices before we even started negotiating. Then, I kept talking to Jack and he said everything I wanted to hear, basically. He knew I'm a family man and wanted to make this a family decision. He helped that process and made it very smooth."

Hart's wife and four kids, ages 12, 9, 7 and 4, all attended his introductory press conference last Friday at Safeco Field. It was his first time ever in Seattle, since he was on the disabled list the only time the Brewers visited Safeco for Interleague Play last year.

Hart is aware of Safeco's reputation as a tough park for right-handed hitters, but some of that was alleviated last year when the left-field fences were brought in. And Hart's initial peek at the park yielded no shivers despite chilly December temperatures that aren't unfamiliar to a player from Milwaukee.

"You hear all this stuff, but I walked out there and it looks fine," Hart said. "It looked like right-center might be big for a right-hander, but usually if I hit 'em, they go out no matter where it's at. I don't hit it a foot over, I hit it pretty far over. So I'm not worried about that. And you play half your games on the road anyway and this league has some good hitter's parks."

What is Hart worried about? At this point, mostly just showing what he can do following microfracture surgeries on each knee. But even that, he said, sounds more troublesome than it was. Hart is working out full speed now and figures all he needs is plenty of at-bats this spring to get his timing back.

"A lot of people wrote me off because I missed a year, but it wasn't like I came off a bad year," Hart said. "I was a good player that just missed time because I had an injury. Lloyd and Jack are big-time behind me and know I might need a lot of Spring Training to get comfortable because I missed so much. But I'm anxious to get out there, because I can't wait to prove these guys right."

Greg Johns is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB as well as his Mariners Musings blog.

Seattle Mariners, Corey Hart