Doug Melvin and the Milwaukee Brewers have been aggressive in locking up their young core over the past year. This gives the organization more stability moving forward and alleviates much of the free agent scrambling that was sure to happen over the upcoming offseasons.
Of course, as one player firmly plants his roots with the Brewers' big league club for the foreseeable future, other players feel the domino effect at the minor league levels.
More specifically, the contract extensions signed by Corey Hart and Rickie Weeks caused the organization to re-evaluate the roles of Triple-A prospects Mat Gamel and Eric Farris -- with new plans coming to light over the past couple weeks.
Gamel to Stay in the Infield
The Brewers reassigned Mat Gamel to minor league camp yesterday, hoping to give him everyday work with Triple-A Nashville at first base. The overwhelming majority of fans and scouts (including myself) saw Gamel eventually landing at a corner outfield position, but Doug Melvin confirmed yesterday that right field is not in the development process for Gamel. He will transition to first base and be the internal option to replace Prince Fielder in the 2012 season.
This move is directly related to the extension of Corey Hart.
Gamel is no longer a young prospect knocking at the door of the big leagues. He will turn 26 this season, and his prospect clock is quickly dwindling. The organization is well aware and acted to ensure that Gamel would have a clear path to the big leagues next season at the very latest.
While it follows on paper that Gamel can transition to first base to serve as the replacement for Fielder after he leaves Milwaukee, questions exist regarding Gamel's ability to produce enough with the bat to warrant consistent playing time at first base. Obviously, first base has the highest offensive threshold as far as average production is concerned, and it is unclear as to whether Gamel will be able to reach that threshold on a consistent basis.
The average production at first base last season was a .834 OPS, which is best personified as a mix between Deric Barton and Mark Teixeira at the plate. Needless to say, that is a rather ambitious "average" for a young hitter.
Unfortunately, the Marcel projection system predicts that Gamel would compile a .754 OPS in the big leagues, which would obviously be well below average at first base. Even Bill James, who is considered extremely optimistic, has Gamel only at an .828 OPS, which would be acceptable but very borderline in terms of production.
It must be noted that Gamel does have upside with the bat and did post an .898 OPS in Triple-A Nashville last season, but one would expect a hitter spending his third season in Triple-A to produce at a high level. The previous season, he compiled a .839 OPS in 61 games in Nashville -- so, as you can see, the questions still remain.
Perhaps the deciding factor as to whether Gamel can provide enough value at first base relies upon his defense.
Third base is no longer an option for Gamel due to his poor footwork and questionable hands. Neither his range nor his throwing arm were ever serious concerns at third. The issue is that his footwork and questionable hands profile to be a continued issue at first base. One would think that Gamel can handle first base defensively (assuredly better than Prince), but it would be a stretch to consider him as profiling as a "good defender" there.
All in all, Gamel profiles as a borderline offensive producer at first base and has serious questions with the glove, but at the league minimum, it is important to remember that he can prove to be a valuable asset with some upside for the next few years.
Farris: The Next Utility Man?
Eric Farris is also experiencing a distinct change in his path to the big leagues.
The 25-year-old has always been known for his glove at second base. He has the range, the hands, and the accuracy, and even though his arm strength has always been a bit suspect, that never projected to be an issue at second base.
With Rickie Weeks firmly entrenched at the second base position for the next four or five years, however, second base is not exactly an open door in which Farris can begin to steal playing time. He was seemingly a "blocked" prospect coming into Spring Training, until the Brewers began to experiment with him at shortstop.
No concrete reports have surfaced regarding Farris' abilities at shortstop, though one has to imagine that he is not terrible and is likely even average. His natural skills defensively have always caused him to profile as more of a utility infielder -- but it seems the organization is beginning to groom him for that role.
An everyday starting position at second base always seemed out of reach for Farris due to his lack of power and inability to draw many walks. In fact, if we transposed his .659 OPS from Triple-A Nashville last season into the big leagues, only Chone Figgins and Ryan Theriot would have been worse at the plate than Farris. The average OPS is .759, and Farris has only surpassed that number in rookie ball over the past four years.
At shortstop, however, that average OPS drops down to .712, which is much more feasible for Farris -- especially if he can prove an ability to handle short with the glove. It is an intriguing developmental option for the young man, and it will be interesting to see how often the organization plays him at shortstop down in Nashville this season.
The most likely path to the big leagues for Farris, however, is as a utility defender and one that can provide plus-defense at some positions and average defense at others. He remains a pure singles hitter who can utilize his speed well to put pressure on the defense and steal quite a few bases and possesses a high baseball IQ.
Players such as those always find a home on a big league roster. It just is normally not as an everyday player. Craig Counsell has made a valuable career of being a light-hitting infielder that could provide a plus-glove at multiple positions. He has also always possessed a great mind for the game and has always been a positive influence in the clubhouse.
Eric Farris profiles as that type of utility player. Baseball America rated him in the Top 10 Brewers Prospects this season, but even they admitted that he was a likely utility guy with a good glove and could provide some value with the bat at times -- which, like Gamel at first, is also valuable to a team at the league minimum for multiple years.
And, again, the organization appears to be moving in that direction with Farris, especially since he has been playing some shortstop this spring.