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02/27/12 5:00 PM EST

Hart prepared to shoulder extra burden

Crew outfielder's productive winter could pay dividends

PHOENIX -- There are the Spring Training stories of players who spend their winter bulking up. There are the stories of guys slimming down.

Then there is the story of Brewers right fielder Corey Hart, who did both.

"One day, I was like, 'Oh my God, I can't be this big,'" Hart said.

That was about three weeks ago, when the 6-foot-6 Hart tipped the scales at 252 lbs. He'd bought his dream home on nearly nine acres in Phoenix's West Valley, including a huge garage for the family's toys (four-wheelers for everybody!), a basketball court, a volleyball court and a big gym for dad to do his offseason workouts.

With so much time to work out and space to do it in, Hart bulked-up well beyond his Spring Training weight last season. His neighbors started commenting about the difference. His wife, Kristina, sounded a warning.

"She said I'd better be careful or I might get hurt," Corey said.

So he switched from the weight room to the miles of running trails that wind through a mountain preserve adjacent to the property. Over the course of three weeks he "did cardio like crazy," and Hart dropped down to 240 pounds.

Why do we care so much about Corey Hart's jacket size? Because the Brewers are counting on him to help ease the pain of Prince Fielder's departure, especially if Hart winds up in the five-hole behind new cleanup man Aramis Ramirez. Last year, Milwaukee ranked 15th of the 16 National League teams in production from its No. 5 hitters, who combined for a .627 OPS.

There's also the fact that, in Hart's case, bigger might not necessarily have been better.

He bulked-up ahead of last season in an effort to stay strong through the summer, but strained a muscle along his rib cage -- an injury that so often attaches itself to players who added muscle -- during a throwing drill four days after the Brewers' first full-squad workout. Hart had slipped on some wet turf, and there is no way to know whether the extra bulk had anything to do with the strain. The setback sent him to the Opening Day disabled list and cost him 22 games.

It should have probably cost him more. But the Brewers needed Hart after another outfielder, Nyjer Morgan, was injured in a collision at home plate.

"He came back early because of a need," manager Ron Roenicke said. "Corey came in and said, 'Even though I'm not locked in offensively, health-wise I'm good, and I'm able to do it.' That cost him a little bit offensively in putting up big numbers."

Roenicke figures that Hart needed about 15 games before he found a rhythm. Hart batted .235 with one RBI in those 15 games. In the 115 games that followed, he hit .290 with 26 home runs and 62 RBIs.

"I don't want to say he's got to be one of our main guys, [but] of course he's important," Roenicke said. "What I saw last year once he got it going, this is a very good Major League hitter who can do a lot of different things."

That could include some first base in 2012. Hart has already been working at first base in drills, and the current plan calls for him to play there occasionally when Mat Gamel, Fielder's 26-year-old replacement, needs a break.

It's a return home for Hart, who was drafted as a first baseman by the Brewers in 2000, making him the organization's longest-tenured player. He subsequently moved to third base and the outfield in the Minor Leagues, and has played right field almost exclusively in the Majors.

"It's asking a lot to put Matty out there for 160," Hart told reporters last month. "Especially, him being a lefty [hitter]. I told them whatever helps us. I'm not extremely excited, but I told them I'll do whatever they want me to do."

Of the adjustment period this spring, Hart said, "I'll be as good as they'll let me be. I'll work and do every drill they throw my way. I told Ron it's their fault if I don't get good over there because I'll do as many drills and early work as I need to."

Hart turns 30 next month and is bullish on the Brewers' chances to repeat as National League Central champions. And he is not among those worried that the offense will suffer without Fielder.

"No, not at all," he said. "Plus, we have the pitching. Our best offensive years might have been 2007 or 2010, and we stunk. Now we have the pitching."

Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Brew Beat, and follow him on Twitter at @AdamMcCalvy. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.