Once viewed as the Brewers’ third baseman of the future, Mat Gamel’s injuries and struggles defensively have kept him in the minors far longer than expected when he ranked 34th on Baseball America‘s list of the top prospects in baseball prior to last season.
Gamel got a brief look at third base last season before giving way to Casey McGehee and has spent all of this year in the minors despite continuing to hit well, which is why it’s no surprise that the Brewers announced he’ll start to see playing time as a first baseman and right fielder at Triple-A.
Here’s how assistant general manager Gord Ash explained the decision:
You don’t want to limit your options. I went there three weeks ago or so and we talked about the fact that in order for him to come to the big leagues and get at-bats, he’s going to have a play a few different places. So we’ve gone from the practice to games.
Gamel will still see plenty of time at third base for now, but clearly the Brewers don’t trust his glove enough to view him as a long-term option there and so instead the idea was to prepare him to potentially replace either Prince Fielder and Corey Hart. Now that Hart has signed a three-year extension, Gamel is insurance for Fielder either leaving as a free agent after next season or being traded before then.
Of course, now Gamel’s bat is also somewhat in question since he’s hit a good but not great .283/.367/.467 with 20 homers, 30 doubles, and a 145/65 K/BB ratio in 135 total games at Triple-A. He no longer looks like an elite bat, which is even more of an issue at an offense-driven position like first base or right field.
Spring training is tough for players under the best of circumstances. Even in an age when players work out all year, getting back into the swing of baseball-at-full-speed is tough. Many players spend the bulk of February and March knocking off the rust and getting their timing back. Because of this — and because the games have no real stakes — it is not wise to take spring training statistics super seriously. Especially if the player in question is assured of a spot on the roster and is trying to avoid injury before the regular season arrives.
Spring training for Shohei Ohtani is doubly difficult. Not only does he have to knock the rust off from the offseason, but he (a) has to get used to a new country and language; (b) has to get to know all new teammates, coaches and, really, an entirely new baseball culture; and (c) do all of that while dealing with a media crush that hasn’t been seen in baseball since Ichiro first arrived 17 years ago. In short, Ohtani is under massive pressure and has to make massive adjustments in a short time.
With that said, neither the Angels nor Ohtani can be all that pleased with how his spring training has gone. In two actual major league exhibition games he’s allowed eight runs in two and two-thirds innings. Seven of those came on Friday when he was shelled by the Rockies in an inning and a third. If you include B-games against minor leaguers, he has allowed 17 runs on 18 hits, four of which were homers, in four games. As a hitter he’s 2-for-20.
As Jeff Fletcher of the OC Register notes, Ohtani’s peripherals are not bad, as he has struck out a lot of guys and walked very few and the average on balls in play against him has been brutal, which is not super sustainable. Bad luck and some fat pitches at a time of the year when luck doesn’t really matter and the pitches, because of the rust, are likely to be fatter than normal.
As Fletcher also notes, Nolan Arenado, who faced Ohtani on Friday, said that his stuff looked good and that he’s going to be a good big league pitcher. Ohtani and Angels officials are all striking the right notes about bad luck and adjustments, saying that they’re not worried.
I imagine they’d be worrying even less if things had gone well this spring. Unless of course this is just a professional wrestling-style work aimed at getting more of us to watch his regular season debut, in which he’ll reveal that he was sandbaggin’ all along.