Gamel going through growing pains
Struggles at plate, McGehee's emergence have slowed rise
MILWAUKEE -- A year ago, no one figured that the only thing separating Brewers prospect Mat Gamel from the big leagues would be questions about his bat.But those questions will bounce around Miller Park this offseason as Brewers officials build a club for 2010. Casey McGehee's transformation from waiver claim to 25th man to bona fide starter has clouded Gamel's future, but so has Gamel's uneven offensive output in a season split between Triple-A Nashville's starting lineup and the Brewers' bench. "When we brought him up, we might have done him a disservice," Brewers general manager Doug Melvin said. "We might have been better to let him stay down there and play the whole year, but he did get the experience and you hope that he learns from it. "We still are very high on him. We like him a lot. I think he's going to be a good big league player. It's just that somebody else has jumped in. That's what the big leagues are all about -- when you get the opportunity, capitalize. That's what Casey McGehee has done." McGehee is hitting .304 this season with 15 home runs, and his 64 RBIs lead all Major League rookies. It appears he'll be the Brewers' Opening Day third baseman in 2010. Gamel, meanwhile, entered the year -- coupled with shortstop Alcides Escobar -- atop Milwaukee's prospect chart. He was the better first-half player, hitting .336 at Nashville before the Brewers promoted him in May. After two months of inconsistent playing time, he returned to the Minors and struggled to a .234 average in the second half. Gamel hit eight home runs in 33 games before the promotion, and just three homers in 42 games after it. In 56 games with the Brewers this season, he owns a .236 average and five home runs, including a three-run shot in Sunday's loss to the Phillies. "I think that there are some overtones of negativity all of a sudden, but when you look at his progression, he had a pretty good year," said Gord Ash, who oversees the team's top two Minor League affiliates. "Like a lot of young players, he still has shortcomings in his game, but he's working on them. "What did you hear last year? That the guy couldn't play third base. I think he's played pretty well there. Has he gotten himself into some habits he would like to change at the plate? Probably. But at the same time, no developing player can do what we're asking him to do right now and do very well. It's tough to sit for two or three days, get an at-bat and be effective. That's why you don't put young guys in those roles." So why did the Brewers do it? That's the question Melvin finds himself asking as he assesses the Brewers' 2009 season. At the same time, Gamel's former Minor League manager is worried about a second consecutive second half decline. Don Money managed Double-A Huntsville in 2008. Gamel was hitting .375 on July 17 that year, but he slipped to .176 over his final 119 Double-A at-bats before a late-season promotion to Nashville and then to Milwaukee. "I think now it's starting to concern me," Money said. "He's a guy who beats himself up so bad, and you can't do that. You can't change your whole attack plan when things don't go right. He was having a great year [in 2009] before he got called up. He got called up and didn't do much more than pinch-hit, he struck out a lot and then carried that back down. "What worries me is when you see a little pattern. It's happened two years in a row now, and hopefully it's just a little bump and he picks it up and wins a job in the big leagues next season. You never know. If not, maybe he'll get a little more seasoning. For some guys, it just takes a little longer." Ash jumped on that last thought. "We've been very fortunate here that we have seen young players come up and have a lot of immediate success," he said in a nod to players such as Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder. "That does not always happen all the time. [Gamel] might have a more traditional path. He needs to understand that." If they could go back to May, would the Brewers do anything different? "I think the only thing we might have done differently is that when it became clear he wasn't going to play a lot, we could have sent him back a little quicker," Ash said. "On the other hand, when you're in this environment, there are still some positives to be taken from it when you are not playing." Gamel has tried to take advantage of those positives. He's often on the field hours before batting practice for extra work with infield coach Willie Randolph. He's also been putting in extra hours in the batting cage with hitting coach Dale Sveum, and he found some fixes over the past four or five days that Gamel said have helped. He showed it on Sunday when he belted a hanging changeup from the Phillies' Joe Blanton for a three-run homer. "That helped out a lot, confidence-wise," Gamel said. Does he feel ready for the Majors? "Yeah," Gamel said. "I'm proud of myself for handling the pitching at every level I've been. I've got confidence in my abilities and what I've done in my Minor League career that I'm not worried about hitting up here." Gamel conceded that McGehee's emergence probably contributed to his troubles. "Casey did some pretty special things, and that guy has to play," Gamel said. "I don't expect to play over him. That guy is having a great year, and he definitely took advantage of his opportunities. I've had my opportunity; I just didn't capitalize on it like Casey did." The Brewers have encouraged Gamel to make up for lost at-bats by playing winter ball, and Gamel is open to the idea. He would prefer the stability of Puerto Rico, where the league resumed last year after shutting down for one season, but Ash has asked him to consider higher-caliber leagues in Venezuela or the Dominican Republic. In any event, Gamel probably wouldn't report until after Thanksgiving. He was asked where he expects to play on Opening Day next season. "You never 'expect,' because that's when you get humbled," he said. "I'm going to bust my tail this offseason and come back in the best shape they've ever seen me. Who knows what will happen?"
Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.