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The Brewers Will Struggle to Replace Mat Gamel

The Milwaukee Brewers will have to find another option to replace Prince Fielder. When the slugging first baseman left the team this off-season, it looked like Mat Gamel was going to get an opportunity to prove himself in the majors. At 26-years-old, this was a make or break year for Gamel — an opportunity to finally show that he was a major league hitter. But Gamel’s breakout will have to wait, as the first baseman suffered a torn ACL in his right knee. Gamel is expected to miss the remainder of the season due to the injury. Although Gamel was far from a sure thing, the Brewers entered the season without any viable backups.

Gamel has bounced between the majors and the minors pretty consistently since 2009. While he had always hit in the minors — compiling a slash line of .304/.376/.498 — he hit just .222/.309/.374 in the majors coming into this season. Because of those struggles, Gamel had started to earn the dreaded Quad-A label. Gamel had opportunities to seize a full-time job in the past, but was never considered the best option. Casey McGehee eventually won the third base job in 2009, and held the job through last season. Although McGehee struggled mightily last year, the Brewers never called up Gamel to replace him.

Because of Gamel’s struggles at the major league level, it’s somewhat curious that the Brewers didn’t pursue a strong backup option at first this season. Travis Ishikawa is expected to receive the bulk of the playing time at first in Gamel’s absence. The 28-year-old Ishikawa has been unspectacular throughout his career, getting just 665 plate appearances spread out over four seasons with the San Francisco Giants before joining the Brewers. Since Ishikawa cannot hit lefties, the team is expected to call up Brooks Conrad to fill that role. That’s not encouraging either, as Conrad is already 32-years-old and has mainly been used as a backup throughout his career.

The team has also discussed moving Corey Hart to first base. After the Gamel injury, Hart was seen fielding ground balls at first before Wednesday night’s game. Moving Hart to first would allow the team to use some combination of Nyjer Morgan, Carlos Gomez and Norichika Aoki in center and right. While all of these players do certain things well, none of them are ideal options in a full-time role. Gomez plays exceptional defense in center, but carries a .244/.292/.361 slash line. Morgan cannot hit left-handed pitching. And while Aoki has shown some promise, he’ll have to prove he’s capable of those numbers everyday. Depending on how Hart handles the defensive transition at first, the Brewers might be in better shape playing Gomez in center and hoping either Morgan starts hitting or Aoki develops into a stopgap in right.

Realizing their current options are less than stellar, the Brewers are considering signing Derrek Lee. While Lee hasn’t played this season, he might be the Brewers’ best option at the position. Lee hit just .267/.325/.446 last season, nearly matching the .263/.338/.439 line put up by the average first baseman last year. It wasn’t a pretty performance, but Lee proved he was still capable of being an average first baseman. That’s more than either Ishikawa or Conrad has shown at this point.

By failing to address the position in the off-season, the Brewers were really counting on Gamel to prove himself at first this year. Now that he’s out for the season, the Brewers will have to scramble to find another viable option. Knowing Gamel’s track record, it’s unclear why the Brewers didn’t pursue better backups. Now, their best option might be calling on Lee, who was facing retirement just a few weeks ago.