From last Friday's season preview of the Milwaukee Brewers...
Can Mat Gamel come close to adequately replacing Prince Fielder at first base?
It's not really possible to replace a player as good as Prince Fielder. He has a career .930 OPS and 230 homers, and he doesn't turn 28 until May. He has five straight seasons of at least 30 homers, and had a .981 OPS last season. He's racked up 23.4 fWAR over his career, and hasn't played in less than 157 games in a full season, including at least 160 over the last three seasons.
But he's no longer a member of the Milwaukee Brewers, and they need to replace him somehow. Their choice is 26 year-old Mat Gamel, who like Ryan Braun, came up through Milwaukee's system as a third baseman, but had such terrible defense that he needed to be shifted off of the position. But the comparison between Gamel and Braun has more than just defense to it: Gamel can really hit. He's spent the majority of the last three seasons at AAA (yeah, I know), and has put up OPSes of .840, .898, and .912 at the level. As he's progressed at AAA, Gamel has worked out the kinks in his plate discipline, going from a 27.8% strikeout rate in 2009 to a 15.4% strikeout rate in 2011. His walk rate has steadily decreased as well, going from 11.9% to 8.4%, but the drop isn't nearly as severe as his drop in strikeouts. Gamel has also improved his power in each of his three AAA seasons. His ISO went from .194 in 2009, to .203 in 2010, to .229 in 2011.
Despite his minor league success, Gamel hasn't been able to put it all together in the majors so far. He's gotten 194 career plate appearances, and has a .683 OPS with a 34.5% strikeout rate. Most of those plate appearances came in 2009, and he has only gotten 44 plate appearances in the last two seasons. Because of the small sample sizes over the last two years, it's hard to get a feel on Gamel as a major league player. I would take everything lately with a grain of salt though, as he was mostly getting pinch hit appearances as opposed to regular playing time to get a rhythm for himself.
As a starter in 2012, Gamel will get every chance to prove himself as a worthy starter. With the addition of slugger Aramis Ramirez at third base this season, the goal of Milwaukee isn't necessarily to replace Fielder with Gamel. They're essentially replacing Fielder and 2011 third baseman Casey McGahee with Gamel and Ramirez. If you look at it from that standpoint, it's much more conceivable that the Brewers can can somewhat close to the production they got in 2011 this season. It's comparable to the approach that the Cardinals took when Albert Pujols left town this season, replacing him with Carlos Beltran and shifting Lance Berkman to first base, which will offset the offensive deficit from going to Pujols to Beltran by improving the team's defense. Milwaukee is looking at the team as a whole, as opposed to each part singularly.
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