Brewers By the (Jersey) Numbers: #24 Mat Gamel
Welcome back. Today begins a stretch of five consecutive days with new profiles for your reading pleasure. That streak will end courtesy of the greatest Milwaukee Brewer of all time, #19 Robin Yount.
Today, however, we’re at 24 in our countdown to Opening Day 2012.
The man who wears 24 is trying to make his first ever career Major League Opening Day 25-man roster at the age of 26.
He is the likely starting first baseman:
Originally drafted in the 4th round of the 2005 First-Year Player Draft, Gamel has been as highly-touted as anyone not named Ryan Braun or Prince Fielder as far as potential and tools and the ability to make an impact at the Major League Level.
This hasn’t happened yet for Gamel for a variety of reasons.
First of all is the fact that Gamel has been blocked a bit by players at third base during his time in the organization. First was when Ryan Braun was drafted and kept at the hot corner initially, but then afterward when the team acquired Casey McGehee.
In part because of Gamel’s inability to throw consistently enough while at third, and partly as a hedge against the likelihood of Prince Fielder’s foray into free agency, Gamel switched positions while at Triple-A Nashville.
While still only occasionally playing third base, especially when McGehee was virtually useless on offense throughout the majority of the 2011 season, Gamel focused on learning first base.
He’s done well enough by most accounts at learning the fundamentals, and despite his early assertions that he didn’t like the position when the change was first made, Gamel now seems to like it fine.
Still, many fans would continually bemoan Fielder’s departure and bring up names of veterans at the position who the Brewers should bring in to man the position instead until perhaps a Hunter Morris or Nick Ramirez (first baseman prospects in the Brewers minor leagues) would be ready for the job. They didn’t seem content to let the to-this-point-underwhelming Gamel try to fill some of the offensive void created.
I’ve been on record all off-season as saying that Gamel needs to get a legitimate chance at first base and it’s encouraging to see that all signs point to Ron Roenicke giving him that opportunity. It wouldn’t be enough to platoon him right away or have him be a bat off the bench. I’ve long been of the opinion that Gamel’s best (and perhaps only) chance to succeed at the big league level is to give him both a job and the consistent at-bats that come along with it.
The team seemed ready to do just that, but Gamel was unable to stay healthy. That brings me to my other point.
The reason that I chose to lead with the words that Gamel “has been waiting” to make an Opening Day roster is because up until this season it never seemed like Gamel was trying to make an Opening Day roster. It’s like he just figured that his natural ability would be enough to get him to The Show.
While it has gotten him there a couple of times as a short-term fill-in during Interleague play, it’s never been enough on its own to keep him in Milwaukee or even to perform well while he was up.
Gamel has torn up minor league hitting long enough that he should have been in Milwaukee sooner but his health and questionable conditioning, drive and determination have let him down and caused him to fall short of his goals. If you read the Manny Parra profile two days ago, you’ll know that sometimes those things are a necessity to succeed. Parra has demonstrated them for years. Gamel, not so much through the 2011 season.
In fact, it got to the point where despite his very good offensive season at Triple-A, Gamel was publicly blasted by Brewers minor league coach Don Money in comments to members of the media. Many fans have used that as fodder for tearing Gamel’s chances down.
Gamel used that as fodder for getting his ass in gear.
One of the most exciting moments of the spring was when we began to hear that Gamel had finally gotten the message that he needed to put in that extra work. He said he was in the “best shape of his life” and while that’s a cliché amongst sportswriters, it truly seemed to true in Gamel’s case.
He dropped some unnecessary weight by hiring a personal trainer for the first time. He worked hard to avoid the nagging and, quite frankly, annoying injuries of years past. He admitted that he hadn’t come to camp before in good enough shape to win a job. Muscle pulls and the like haven’t hampered Gamel at all this year.
Gamel has finally had a healthy Spring Training and the results of being up to speed on offense and in the field have begun to show themselves. He had a stretch recently where he hit a home run in three consecutive games, after the second of which Roenicke stated that he absolutely thinks that Gamel is capable of hitting 20+ home runs during the 2012 season.
It’s a far cry from Money’s comments last September.
As someone who has always believed in Gamel, perhaps I’m invested in his personal success more than most. Some only care about the Wins and Losses and don’t care how they are achieved. That’s fine, but that’s not me. I pay attention to the individual performances, trends, etc. That’s probably mostly caused by of my line of work, but so be it.
The bottom line is that I truly believe he’s capable of helping this team win, which is the most important thing after all.
You can follow Mat and his wife Julianne on Twitter: @JMGamel