Brewers first baseman Corey Hart will miss the next three to four months — or about six weeks of the regular season — as the former outfielder requires surgery to repair a meniscal tear on his right knee. Hart thrived through a transition from right field to first base after Mat Gamel suffered a torn ACL attempting to run down a foul ball last year. Now, presumably, Gamel will get to take a turn as the injury replacement at first base in Milwaukee.
The 27-year-old Gamel has had a rough road on his way to the majors. Prince Fielder blocked him throughout his early and mid-20s. Although Gamel was a third baseman for some time, it was only in name — his .886 fielding percentage fully describes that quixotic venture. Trade offers big enough to pry him away never came around — potentially because of the failures of similar prospect Matt LaPorta (how I dreamed of a LaPorta-Fielder-Gamel core six years ago), but more likely because he suffered from major contact issues. Once he hit Triple-A, Gamel routinely posted Ryan Howard-esque strikeout rates — 27.8 percent in 2009 and 28.1 percent in 2010.
These contact issues characterized Gamel’s one extended stint in the majors. Gamel took 148 plate appearances over 61 games and struck out 54 times (36.5 percent). Although he showed solid power — he slugged five home runs, six doubles and a triple — such contact issues would be a severe limiting factor over a full season.
If there’s reason for hope for Milwaukee, it’s his performance since returning to the minor leagues. Gamel lowered his strikeout rate to 17.8 percent in Triple-A for the rest of 2010 and posted a sharp 15.4 percent strikeout rate in 545 plate appearances in 2011 at the same level. Although his power remains underwhelming given the PCL envirnoment — his .229 ISO in 2011 was his best in three 75-game or longer stints there — developing contact skills should pay extra dividends with a swing that was always built more for line drives than lofty power anyway.
Still, even the most optimistic projections shouldn’t expect Gamel to be useful against left-handed pitching, something he’s always struggled a bit with. The Brewers don’t have an obvious platoon partner in the system — they shouldn’t pull Hunter Morris off the development track for six weeks of a short-side platoon role. The free agent list is pretty much barren, so Gamel may just have to try his best to handle lefties until Hart returns.
Four years ago, Gamel looked poised to join the Brewers’ bevy of home-grown big-time bats — Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun, Corey Hart, Rickie Weeks and J.J. Hardy, all drafted by Jack Zduriencik, powered the Brewers to their first playoff berth in 2008, just one year before Gamel took the 34th spot on Baseball America’s top-100 prospects list. But Gamel has shown just how tough it can be to develop and find a spot for prospects who don’t have a true home.
His one chance — seemingly his last chance — evaporated as his ACL tore up just 21 games into 2012. Now, thanks to Hart’s knee injury, he gets one final shot to prove he belongs in the major leagues.