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01/12/12 12:40 PM EST
Spring shaping up as crucial one for Gamel
Brewers' likely replacement for Fielder hopes to stay healthy
By Adam McCalvy / MLB.com
MILWAUKEE -- Brewers first baseman-to-be Mat Gamel says he is working hard this winter to get in shape for the most important Spring Training of his baseball life.
Gamel told The Sporting News this week that he dropped a few pounds by cutting out fast food and has rededicated himself to the weight room. That will come as good news to Milwaukee manager Ron Roenicke, who said this about Gamel earlier this winter, after it became clear the Brewers wouldn't be players for free-agent first baseman Prince Fielder:
"Hopefully he comes to camp ready and in good shape," Roenicke said. "If Prince doesn't re-sign, [Gamel] deserves to get a shot at first base."
Whether or not they were related to his physical conditioning is up for debate, but ill-timed Spring Training injuries have essentially cost Gamel a chance to compete for each of the Brewers' past three Opening Day rosters. He had a sore throwing shoulder in 2009 and a torn "lat" muscle in 2010 under former manager Ken Macha, then suffered a rib-cage strain that sidelined him again in '11 under new manager Roenicke.
Gamel, 26, has hit at every level of the Minor Leagues, but has yet to establish himself in the Majors, where he has batted .222 in 194 sporadic plate appearances over four seasons. He's a .304 hitter in seven Minor League seasons, and set a career high with 28 home runs at Triple-A Nashville last season while driving in 96 runs and batting .310.
In November at the General Managers Meetings, Brewers GM Doug Melvin said it was time to give Gamel a shot. Gamel came up as a third baseman and also has played some outfield, but the Brewers moved him to first base last season as insurance against Fielder's departure.
Fielder will leave big shoes to fill. He's second on the franchise leaderboard with 230 home runs and sixth with 656 RBIs, though he played more than 150 games fewer than any of the players in the Top 5.
Gamel told The Sporting News that he's not thinking about "replacing" one of the best hitters in Brewers history.
"That can mess with your head," he said.
Instead, he's focused on improving his own game. Gamel said he has been to the batting cages in Jacksonville five times a week since returning home from a stint in the Dominican Winter League. He hit .172 (11-for-64) in the Dominican, with three extra-base hits, including a pair of home runs.
Next stop: Phoenix. Brewers pitchers and catchers report for Spring Training on Feb. 18, with position players following a few days later.
"This offseason has been a lot different than the others," Gamel told The Sporting News. "I'm trying to go back in the best shape that I can."
Fielder, meanwhile, remains unsigned and reaching uncharted territory for a free agent of his stature. MLB.com's Tom Singer examined the timings of previous megadeals
and found that Fielder this week passed Carlos Beltran, who agreed to his seven-year, $119 million contract with the Mets on Jan. 10, 2005, and Vladimir Guerrero, who struck a five-year, $70 million deal with the Angels on Jan. 11, 2004.
Beyond that, Singer found only one more remaining target for a long-term, big-ticket signing: Jan. 26, the day in 2005 on which Carlos Delgado ended a long free agency by signing a four-year, $52 million pact with the Marlins.
Last winter, the latest prominent free-agent signing was between third baseman Adrian Beltre and the Rangers on Jan. 5. Beltre, like Fielder, is a client of agent Scott Boras.
The Brewers made Fielder their first-round Draft pick in 2002, and had discussions with Boras about an extension during 2010 Spring Training, but those talks did not progress. Melvin has since allocated those dollars to extensions for in-house players like Ryan Braun, Corey Hart and Rickie Weeks, and has acquired or signed high-priced players like Zack Greinke and Aramis Ramirez.
Melvin made it clear at the Winter Meetings that, "we're at a point now where we have to consider moving on," from Fielder, and he said last week that he'd had no discussions with Boras.
"We're just moving through the process," Boras said Wednesday night at the Owners Meetings in Phoenix. "It's just one that takes some time. You've got to meet with owners. You've got to sit down and talk with them about their needs. He needs to know where they're headed. He's going to be there a long time, wherever he's going. So we need to get that information to him and evaluate it."
Boras said Fielder would be signed, "well in advance of Spring Training."