With the official departure of Prince Fielder, the Brewers have, umm, a large spot in the lineup to fill – pun intended, of course. Fielder, who’s more solidly built than his father, Cecil, recently inked a mega-deal of sorts with the team across Lake Michigan, the Detroit Tigers. Fine. But how do the Brewers replace a middle of the order bat, one responsible for 228 homeruns since 2006, the third highest total in baseball, a .400 OBP, and perhaps most importantly, 5+ wins? Oh, yeah, they’ll most likely have to do without Ryan Braun for 50 games too.
Well, it’s not going to be easy replacing Fielder, obviously. With Spring Training right around the corner and the free agent market, especially for first basemen where Casey Kotchmanhas now become the cream of the remaining crop, has dried up, Milwaukee is likely to turn to an in-house replacement: Mat Gamel.
The former defensive liability at third base shifted across the diamond fulltime last season, and posted the best power numbers of his career (.540 slugging percentage and 28 homeruns) in his third full season in Triple-A, with the Nashville Sounds. Gamel, 26, hit .310/.372/.540. His total offensive production, as determined by Weighted Runs Created Plus, was 22% better than the Triple-A league average. And his defensive numbers, at least the less-than-advanced minor league totals available, were solid.
Is Gamel, a twice-named top 100 prospect by Baseball America, ready to contribute at the big league level, and in doing so help alleviate the loss of Prince Fielder?
In a word: yes. In several words: he will help alleviate the loss, but his contributions will fall short in the long term.
During his seven-year minor league career, Gamel’s hit .304/.376/.498, and over the past three-plus years in Triple-A he’s hit .301/.374/.512. His plate discipline isn’t spectacular, but he’s still managed to walk in over 8% of his plate appearances this past season while improving his strikeout rate to 14.8%. He’s always posted above-average or better power scores – his minor league career ISO is .194 – but excluding 2011he has never really shown the typical homerun numbers expected; last year marked the second time in his career that he’s topped 20 homeruns. Instead, he’s been a doubles machine, consistently wearing out outfield walls, averaging over 35 doubles for every 600 plate appearances throughout his minor league time. But remember: Gamel is now an older prospect, and because of that one with a limited ceiling.
So, what’s to be expected from Gamel in 2012?
Well, during his only extended Major League action, in 2009, he hit .244/.338/.422 in 148 plate appearances as a 23-year-old, and was worth about half-of-a-win. Those numbers seem repeatable enough, and should be considered the floor level of his potential considering his track record, with much more promise if he can maintain his strong peripheral rates.
Bill James predicts that Gamel will hit .282/.342/.476, while matching his strikeout and walk rates from last season. Overall, according to James’s offensive prediction, he would be worth about 2.5 wins next season, about a three win difference from Fielder’s production, quite a sizeable gap.
Look, the National League Central Division is filled with flawed teams: St. Louis lost Albert Pujols; Cincinnati’s pitching, even with the acquisition of Mat Latos, still has questions surrounding it; the Cubs are looking to rebuild; and both Houston and Pittsburgh won’t challenge this year. So the Brewers could sneak into the playoff picture next season – depending on the outcome of Braun’s potential suspension – but they will need Gamel to step, probably even more so than James is predicting, which seems highly unlikely. And don’t be surprised if his numbers are a lot closer to his 2009 totals than what James is forecasting.