What can we expect from Mat Gamel?
Prince Fielder has gone to Detroit, taking with him an average of 37 home runs and 106 RBIs per 162 games and leaving a gaping hole in the Milwaukee lineup. The Brewers have decided to try to fill that hole with Mat Gamel.
On the surface, his career big league average of .222 -- a number that includes last season's 3-for-26 during an unimpressive midseason call-up -- perhaps seems to portent disaster. However, there's much more here than meets the eye.
Before the start of the 2009 season, the Milwaukee Brewers were pretty excited about a young third-base prospect in their system who had been torching Double-A pitching. He had led the Southern League in RBIs and extra-base hits. He finished second overall in batting average (.329) and fourth in OPS (.933).
What impressed the team even more was that he did all of this despite enduring a bad elbow that saw him hit just .243 in July and .205 in August. At the time he was named to the All-Star Futures team in late June, the prospect was hitting .373 with 67 RBIs. Defensively, he left a lot to be desired, committing 32 errors at the hot corner in 2008, only somewhat down from the 53 errors he made the season before.
That prospect was Gamel, whose skill with the bat was simply too great to ignore, despite his seeming ineptness with the glove. When the Brewers needed an extra bat on the bench in May 2009, with interleague play looming and a DH spot looking to be filled, they demoted Brad Nelson, who was 0-for-21 on the season, and called up Gamel from Triple-A, where he had been hitting .336 with eight home runs and 31 RBIs.
After a game on July 19, Gamel was sent back to Triple-A. He had hit .239 with four home runs and 16 RBIs during his stay. The problem, though, was that Gamel was being used primarily as a pinch hitter with only occasional play at third base. He wasn't getting consistent at-bats, and that was clearly having an effect on him.
Let's face it. Not everyone can handle being tasked with being a pinch hitter, especially not younger players. Gamel is not unique in his struggles with coming into games cold. And it is clear that he has performed far better in his limited major league time when he has been given the chance to play the field.
In 2009, in 84 at-bats while playing at third base, he hit .274 with five home runs and 17 RBIs. Compare that to his career batting average as a DH (7-for-32, .219) or as a pinch hitter (5-for-30, .167) and it seems clear that with regular playing time, Gamel is much more likely to succeed.
But it goes beyond that small sample size of numbers. It's a mental thing as well. The Brewers have clearly never wavered in their confidence in terms of Gamel's abilities at the plate. There's a reason that in both 2010 and 2011, it was Gamel the team brought up from Triple-A specifically to step in as their DH in interleague road games at American League parks.
Heck, Gamel hit .310 with 28 home runs and 96 RBIs in Nashville last season. We know he can hit at that level. The question continues to be whether he's one of those "Quad-A" players who can't make the jump to the major league level, despite being a star in Triple-A.
But consider the fact that every time Gamel has come to the majors he's known the stay was likely a limited one. In 2009, he did stick around for a short time, because Rickie Weeks got hurt and was out for the year. But with the emergence of Casey McGehee and a trade that brought Felipe Lopez to the team, he no longer had a place to play.
Gamel moved around a bit, trying his hand in both the outfield and at first base in 2010, but with Ryan Braun, Corey Hart and Prince Fielder in the mix, the road to Milwaukee was full of obstacles. Each time Gamel was promoted for what he knew was likely to be only a two-week-long stay, he clearly was putting enormous pressure on himself to try to make a huge impact.
That was quite apparent to teammates such as Ryan Braun, who has already seen a difference in Gamel this spring. "In the past, I think he's come up and thought if he didn't go 10-for-20, he wasn't going to get to stay up," Braun said on the team's official website. "Knowing he's finally going to get the opportunity to play every day, he's more confident than ever. You can see him go about his business more serious and professional than he has in the past."
With Fielder gone, the Brewers want Gamel to be their first baseman. This isn't a case of Fielder leaving via free agency and the team scrambling for a replacement. The organization told Gamel to play exclusively at first base in Nashville last year because it knew there was a very real possibility it'd be losing Fielder.
While his defense is still not quite Gold Glove-caliber by any means, in 102 games, he made only 11 errors at first base in 2011. Making that long throw from third was clearly the biggest culprit in terms of keeping his fielding percentage low, and now it's no longer an issue.
Through nine games this spring, Gamel was hitting .318. He homered in three consecutive games from March 8-10. No, being able to knock the cover off the ball against pitchers such as Mike Leake, Chris Ray and Justin Fitzgerald doesn't suddenly prove that Gamel is going to be a big league success. However, it is a positive sign, as is the fact he reportedly came into camp 25-30 pounds lighter than last spring, when he admittedly was "out of shape."
Personally, I'd much sooner take a chance on Gamel at the corner position (he's eligible to be drafted at third base only) before I'd take a guy such as Gaby Sanchez, Freddie Freeman or Lonnie Chisenhall. Gamel's defense is not going to cause the Brewers to be pulling their hair out and force him to the bench. Once the season starts, with the confidence that he has the job locked down, there's every reason to think he'll succeed this time around and avoid going the Justin Huber route.
Even hitting in a lineup surrounded by Weeks, Aramis Ramirez and 2011 NL MVP Braun, Gamel may never approach the run production that Fielder gave this team, but 20 home runs, 80 RBIs and a .280 batting average certainly should not surprise you.
It certainly won't surprise Gamel. He's finally ready for his close-up.