Wednesday was a dark day for Brewers fans. Not only did right-hander Jeff Suppan shutout the Brewers over five excruciating innings, but news also surfaced that Mat Gamel tore the ACL in his right knee and could miss the remainder of the year.
Your heart goes out to Gamel, who slogged through the past four years in Triple-A and finally received his chance to prove himself at the big league level with at-bats everyday. The results were not overwhelming — as he only hit .246/.293/.348 through the month of April — but the 26-year-old showed signs of life at the plate this year. Now, Gamel once again finds himself on the outside, helplessly looking on as another roadblock in his pathway to the big leagues stands in his way.
The short-term plan for the Brewers appears to be a platoon between left-hander Travis Ishikawa and switch-hitter Brooks Conrad. Ishikawa earned a spot on the big league roster after he impressed the coaching staff this spring. Conrad, on the other hand, has been tearing the cover off the baseball for Triple-A Nashville. He has homered in three consecutive games and is currently in the midst of a ten-game hitting streak. His hot bat could be a welcome addition to a sluggish offense.
Doug Melvin and Ron Roenicke likely do not wish to navigate the remainder of the season with a platoon of fringe big leaguers at first base, though. A more permanent plan has begun percolating in the background.
Buster Olney of ESPN tweeted on Wednesday that the Brewers will begin giving Taylor Green the majority of starts at first base in Nashville, in hopes that he can prove capable and be the long-term answer for the organization this year. The reigning Player of the Year in the Brewers’ minor league organization scuffled out of the gates, but has begun swinging the bat much better as of late. He owns a .278/.363/.378 triple-slash line, but is hitting .359 in his past ten games.
The issue with Green supplanting Gamel at first base revolves around the exact same concerns about Green at third base. Can he hit for enough power to be valuable at that position? Through the entire first month of the season in Triple-A, the 25-year-old has not hit a single home run. That stands in stark contrast to his 2011 season, in which he slugged 22 home runs for the Nashville Sounds. Green will need to replicate that sort of power if he hopes to see the majority of plate appearances at first base for the Brewers.
The organization has other options. Corey Hart can play first base. He played there throughout the majority of his minor league career before moving to the outfield due to the presence of Prince Fielder. Hart reportedly took grounders at first base on Wednesday, and Doug Melvin has mentioned that Roenicke will speak to Hart about potentially seeing some time at first.
It seems unlikely that Hart will move to first on a permanent basis, however. His value as a player — especially as he nears free agency — lies in the outfield. Maintaining the value is important for him. Still, the organization could look to play Hart at first base against left-handed pitchers and platoon Ishikawa against right-handed pitchers. That would, of course, leave right field to Norichika Aoki or Nyjer Morgan in that scenario.
Melvin could also seek a replacement from outside the organization. The most commonly discussed target since the extent of Gamel’s injury surfaced has been Derrek Lee. The former Chicago Cub first baseman did not sign with any team over the offseason because he could not find a starting job anywhere, so retirement became a legitimate option. Now, the Brewers could come calling with a promising opportunity for him.
The trade market also presents legitimate opportunity, though Doug Melvin should not consider trading any of the pitching depth the organization has finally begun to accumulate. With Zack Greinke, Shaun Marcum, and Randy Wolf potentially leaving after the season, the Brewers cannot afford to begin emptying the cupboards at the minor league level to plug a hole at the major league level. That would severely damage the future ability for this club to compete in the coming years.
Still, as the trade deadline approaches, players start to become available for reasonable prices. The Brewers would likely not be in the market for a top-tier first baseman for the concerns outlined above regarding pitching prospects, but someone like a Carlos Lee or Daric Barton can be had for a middling prospect. It is far too early to project which teams will be buying and which will be selling, however, especially with the second Wild Card position open. Many more teams could see themselves as “in the hunt” come July than normal, which will severely limit trading opportunities.
Here are two unlikely, yet intriguing options to solve the riddle at first base:
- Move Corey Hart to first base and call up Caleb Gindl. The 23-year-old outfielder turned some heads during spring training, causing multiple scouts to praise his ability to hit the baseball. He has struggled immensely in Nashville this year, though that profiles as being a temporary situation. Caleb Gindl will not hit .184 for very long.
- George Kottaras. The Brewers backup catcher stole headlines in the first two weeks of the season, mashing home runs and hitting game-winning doubles, but his value will ultimately be limited due to his defensive skills behind the plate. Could the Brewers move him to first base, give him extended at-bats, and attempt to capitalize on the skill that has earned him a spot on this roster? That would make Ishikawa expendable and mean Martin Maldonado would need to be on the big league roster to serve as the primary backup catcher, but neither of those consequences would be difficult to digest.
No matter what the Brewers do to replace Mat Gamel, the key factor will be limiting the plate appearances for Travis Ishikawa. The 28-year-old has never hit more than nine home runs in a season and provides the vast majority of his value with the glove. He has also struggled against left-handed pitching throughout his career, hitting only .239 against lefties.
Expect the Brewers to announce the promotion of Brooks Conrad on Thursday. With Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain on the docket this weekend for the Brew Crew in San Francisco, he should see some action. A Conrad/Ishikawa platoon will not be the end-game for Doug Melvin, however. Keep an eye on Triple-A Nashville, the waiver wire, and the trade market. That is where the real dance will be played.