Without a minor league option, with a volatile level of major league performance, with a lack of defensive proficiency, and without a corner outfield position to play consistently, David Stearns made a deal with Jerry Dipoto to send Domingo Santana to the Seattle Mariners. One of the pieces coming back might be best known by Brewers fans as the little brother of former Brewer, Mat Gamel. Ben Gamel is a versatile, left-handed hitting outfielder that has shown promise, but projects as a fourth outfielder with Milwaukee. Yet he might be a better fit for the Brew Crew than Santana, at least in terms of 2019 roster construction.
The Mariners acquired Gamel in 2016 from the Yankees. After two stellar seasons with New York’s AAA affiliate Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, Gamel was named International League Most Valuable Player for 2016. That year, the younger Gamel brother slashed .308/.365/.420 while hitting 26 doubles and 6 home runs. His 2015 season with the RailRiders might have been even better, with a slash line of .300/.358/.472 along with 28 doubles, 10 home runs, and, interestingly, 14 triples. At the age of 24, the Yankees saw enough to play him in 6 games and give him 8 at-bats in 2016.
In 2017, Gamel got his first real shot with the Mariners. He played in 134 games slashing .275/.322/.413 with 11 home runs. That translated to a wRC+ of 100, meaning that Gamel was ultimately a league-average hitter during his rookie year.
Starting the 2018 season with an oblique injury (a notoriously difficult injury to have for a hitter), Gamel opened in the minors on a rehab assignment that extended until the middle of May. The 44 year old Ichiro Suzuki and Guillermo Heredia played April and into May. In late May, the Mariners were winning a lot of close games and believed they were in the hunt for a playoff run. Striking well before the non-waiver trade deadline, Dipoto made a deal with Tampa Bay to bring veteran Denard Span to Seattle, which essentially put Gamel into a platoon with Span. Closer to the trade deadline, Dipoto traded for Cameron Maybin. So going into August, Seattle had Gamel, Heredia, Span, Maybin, and Mitch Haniger in the outfield. With so many outfield options and with a significant stretch of facing left-handed starting pitchers, Gamel was sent to AAA Tacoma even though he was hitting close to .300 at the time. Once he came back to Seattle, Span had established himself as the everyday left fielder, so he served more as a pinch hitter and spot starter.
David Stearns said that Domingo Santana’s 2018 performance was, at least in part, due to being a victim of circumstances. The same could be said of Ben Gamel. The circumstances of 2018 resulted in reduced playing time (and quite possibly development) for the rest of the season. In 2018, Gamel slashed .272/.358/.370 with only 1 home run. However, he only had 293 at-bats as opposed to 550 in 2017. Interestingly, according to wRC+, Gamel was an above average hitter in 2018 (108 wRC+). As with Santana, there is quite possibly more to come, but in a different way. And that way may be specifically beneficial to the Brewers.
Gamel is certainly more beneficial to the Brewers in terms of control. He still has one more minor option remaining, which Stearns would definitely see as a value add. He also has one more year of club control remaining than Santana, who is arbitration-eligible for the first time this winter. Letting Santana go had to hurt. He could be a formidable player and has previously demonstrated that already in 2017. But Gamel fits what the Brewers need right now.
Gamel is competent in all three outfield positions and can play first base if needed, too. Positional and optional flexibility certainly makes Gamel attractive, though it seems that he is mediocre defensively. In 2017, Gamel had an UZR of 1.7, and in 2018 he had an UZR of -0.4. That means he is basically a league-average outfielder in terms of defense (slightly above in 2017 and slightly below in 2018). But he does make some highlight reel plays, which makes him an enjoyable player to watch, and might be indicative of a hard-nosed, gritty, energetic player that would fit Milwaukee perfectly.
As mentioned above, this gritty outfielder is a league average hitter. Unsurprisingly, ZIPS projections have Gamel’s 2019 season looking like something similar to 2017 and 2018. He is forecasted to slash .267/.331/.413 with just 9 home runs and carry a 1.3 WAR. That is actually not a terrible line for what amounts to the fourth outfielder on this team.
With Ryan Braun’s injuries and age, Gamel is also a solid bet to play substantial time in his place, and he will be there if Lorenzo Cain or Christian Yelich go down. He figures to hit and defend competently. He is going to make contact. He will run the bases well. And he will be a left-handed option to utilize off the bench or in appropriate matchups. If you squint hard enough and think positive thoughts, you can even see something more than an average major league player. And that might come from some of the intangibles he seems to possess.
Ben Gamel seems like the type of player that “Johnny Hustle” would be his cup of tea. He does not have the grace of Cain and Yelich, but he will get after it and be a spark plug for this team. As a result, he may just become a fan favorite in the city of Milwaukee, and he appears to be in line to play a substantial role for the Brewers in 2019 and quite possibly beyond.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs