MILWAUKEE -- Milwaukee Brewers first baseman Corey Hart said Friday he's already begun rehabilitation after having knee surgery less than two weeks ago and that if all goes well with an MRI in three weeks, there's a "realistic" chance he could be ready to play by the end of April, nearly a month ahead of what was projected.
"If it takes a little longer then mid to end of May, but I feel good about end of April," Hart said in a text message. "So basically like 2011, when I came back and hit 26 homers in five months."
With Hart out, Mat Gamel will get another shot to show the Brewers he fits into their long-term plans.
Gamel would have rather earned his spot in the lineup, but he's ready to prove his value.
"It's terrible," Gamel said of Hart's injury. "But now I have an opportunity again."
In a role reversal from 2012, when Gamel tore a knee ligament after just 21 games and Hart moved to first base from right field, Gamel should open the season at first to fill in for Hart.
Gamel is hoping to use the time to show that he belongs in Milwaukee. Once the organization's top prospect, Gamel exceled against minor league pitching, hitting .304 with 105 home runs and 503 RBIs in seven seasons.
At the major league level, however, Gamel has been unable to duplicate that success, hitting just .229 with six homers and 29 RBIs in 106 games in parts of five seasons.
He got off to a solid start in 2012, hitting .246 with a home run and six RBIs before tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee May 1. Gamel had surgery later that month and, after nine months of rehab, expects to be ready to go when camp opens Feb. 15 in Phoenix.
"The only thing Gamel hasn't done yet is get on a field and play," Brewers assistant general manager Gord Ash said. "In terms of his health, he's ready to go."
He has seen a majority of his action at first base, but Milwaukee manager Ron Roenicke plans to move Gamel around the field.
Hart performed so well at first base last year that he was expected to be the starting first baseman this season. When he returns to the team, Hart will be back in that spot with Gamel likely to fill more of a utility role.
"Gamel still needs to play some outfield and he still needs to play some third because when Corey comes back, Corey is going to be our first baseman," Roenicke said. "We need to look at some other guys."
Gamel, for his part, is willing to do what it takes to stick around.
"Whatever they want me to do," Gamel said.
This is a big season for Gamel, who at 27 is out of minor league options and hasn't made much of an impact at the major league level. It's also a big one for Hart, who is entering the final year of a three-year, $26.5 million deal signed in August 2008.
Taken in the 11th round of the 2000 draft, Hart is the Brewers' longest-tenured player and he expressed a desire to stay in Milwaukee when his name surfaced in trade rumors as the Brewers dropped out of contention midseason.
He hit .270 a year ago with 30 home runs, 83 RBIs and five stolen bases. In 945 career games, Hart is a .276 hitter with 154 home runs and 508 RBIs.
Should Gamel falter and Hart's recovery takes longer than expected, the Brewers could look to the farm system for help. Prospect Hunter Morris will open the season at Triple-A Nashville after hitting .303 with 28 home runs, 40 doubles and 113 RBIs last season with Double-A Huntsville. He earned Southern League and Brewers Player of the Year awards in the process.
Morris' presence could add another layer of uncertainty to Gamel and Hart's future with the ballclub, but he does not figure into the Brewers' full-time plans this season.
To add some depth at the position, general manager Doug Melvin has been in talks with several players. One of them, veteran Lyle Overbay, signed this week with Boston, sources told ESPN.
"There's still the possibility that Doug is talking to some guys right now (and) we get somebody else into camp," Roenicke said.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.