The news that Corey Hart is going to miss the first six weeks or so of the season might seem like a huge setback for a Milwaukee Brewers team that hasn’t achieved much this winter. Hart is a free agent after the 2013 season. If the Brewers aren’t contending in the NL Central by the season’s midpoint, the time in which GM Doug Melvin has to show off and shop him by the trade deadline will be tightly compressed.
However, the silver lining is that the Brewers have an alternative who is as ready as he’s ever going to be: Former top prospect Mat Gamel. Already out of options, Gamel’s time is now. More properly, it was last year, but tearing up his ACL in May ended his season early, and delayed his long-anticipated breakthrough as the designated replacement for Prince Fielder. With a career .301/.374/.512 line in Triple-A across parts of four different seasons with the Sounds, Gamel has nothing left to prove in the minors. And heading into his age-27 season, in the middle of that 25-to-29 sweet spot most players peak, Gamel may be perfectly positioned to finally break through.
Before the news that Hart would be out, Gamel’s role was ambiguous at best. He wouldn’t clear waivers if exposed. With Hart at first base, Ryan Braun in left field and leadoff man Norichika Aoki manning right, there’s no open regular slot for Gamel in the corners where he might play passably. (In the minors, Gamel spent most of his time trying and failing to hack it at third base, producing a Butch Hobson-esque .886 career fielding percentage.) With Hart out of the way in the early going, this will be Gamel’s best, and perhaps last, shot to break through and stick as a Brewer.
The question is whether all of the scouting touts will add up to a hitter whose bat plays at first base. This winter’s "Bill James Handbook" projects him to hit .287/.351/.473, not the worst fallback bat to plug in for Hart after his .270/334/.507 season in 2012. If Gamel breaks through, it creates one of those nice problems for the Brewers. Gamel could rotate through first and the outfield corners as the primary reserve. Melvin could then wait and see if he has a contender on his hands, or if Hart’s return to action is impressive enough to draw a worthwhile trade offer from someone else who does.
And of course, if Gamel gets hurt -- again, because he lost a big chunk of 2010 to a strained shoulder on top of losing 2012 to that knee surgery -- then we could always start talking about the Brewers’ next corner prodigy, first base prospect Hunter Morris. Where Gamel’s eventual position has always been in doubt, Morris is a highly regarded defender at first base, and Morris’ credentials as a hitter are already impressive after a .303/.357/.563 season for Double-A Huntsville, with 28 homers.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.