Mat Gamel’s bat has him on the fast track to reach the major leagues.
His glovework is apparently the only roadblock between here and Milwaukee.
Just through the first five games of the Nashville Sounds season, the highly regarded third baseman has shown exactly what his past few seasons have suggested about him. He has opened the year batting a scorching .556 with two home runs and 10 RBIs already. Of course, those slow-pitch softball numbers won’t continue all year, but as advertised, Gamel is quite the hitting prospect.
On the other hand, however, is the defense, where Gamel is still adjusting and trying to improve his fielding to the point where the Brewers can take full advantage of his potent offensive abilities.
Gamel already has three errors in five games at third base, including a 10th inning error against New Orleans on last Sunday that opened the floodgates for six runs in the extra frame of an 11-5 loss.
In Monday’s 4-3 victory over Oklahoma City, Gamel hammered a home run and had a fielding error as well.
Gamel is well aware that while he is quite the hitting prospect that there is work to be done before he is a finished product ready for an extended stay in the big leagues.
“I’d love to start up in Milwaukee, but this is a good learning experience to see what I have to work on and improve on to better my chances to stay up there,” Gamel said.
He has a good mentor and instructor in Sounds manager Don Money, himself a former major league third baseman and veteran of 16 major league seasons with the Philadelphia Phillies and Brewers.
“He put good numbers up. That’s how you get on the fast track. He had very solid numbers last year in ’08 and he hit .300 in ’07,” said Money, who managed Gamel at Double-A Huntsville last year. “His Achilles heel is his defense, and he made very solid progress from ’07 to ’08 and now we just have to continue making progress from ’08 to ’09.”
Gamel batted .329 for the Huntsville Stars last year, then got a five-game call-up with the Sounds where he batted .238, and even got two at-bats and his first major league hit last September with the Brewers.
Defensively, however, Gamel has been a work in progress. He had 34 errors at third base in 2006, his first full year of pro ball, 53 errors in the Class A Florida State League in 2007 and 32 more last year. But Money is seeing improvement.
“He made 55 errors or whatever it was. Hopefully, you get better,” Money said. “When I asked him, I said, ‘What’s your problem — throwing or fielding.’ And he said 50-50. I said, ‘We’re going to eliminate a lot of your throwing errors, because that’s all footwork, and his footwork was all fouled up.”
The throwing error on Sunday came because Gamel didn’t square his body after making a nice stop, according to Money. But the manager hopes to use it as a learning tool.
“I said, ‘Just tell me you knew what you did wrong,’” Money said. “And he said, ‘I didn’t get my shoulders turned.” So at least he knew what he did wrong. Our job is to get these players ready. We’re trying to win, too. You’re trying to win as many games as you can. It’s our job to get them ready, make sure they get their work done.”
Gamel knows there is work to be done, in all aspects of his game, such as making the jump up another level and facing the tougher pitching before going on to the majors. But he is trying to shore up the defensive aspect of his game as well.
“I have lots to work on at third base and just defense in general. I’m starting to get more comfortable. But I just have to keep working on it every day,” Gamel said.
Gamel also doesn’t take his status as a top prospect — he was a fourth-round pick out of Chipola Junior College in Florida in 2005 — for granted either.
“It doesn’t mean I’m going to get to the big leagues. You’ve still got to come out and play the game and do a lot of other things to get there,” Gamel said. “I just try to come out and focus on what I’m supposed to focus on, which is here in Nashville. Hopefully, I get a call-up, but in the same breath, I can’t worry about when it’s going to happen, because then I won’t be focused 100 percent on what I have to do here.”
Is there the thought of doing with Gamel what the Brewers eventually did with Ryan Braun just to get Gamel’s potent left-handed bat in the lineup? Braun started out as a third baseman, tore Triple-A pitching apart at Nashville for about six week in 2007 and went on to be National League Rookie of the Year in just 113 games with a .324 average and 34 homers for the Brewers. It was his 26 errors at third that eventually shuttled him to the outfield for good the next spring.
“We’ll have to determine all those things,” said Money, pointing out that third base is still the priority for Gamel.
For his part, Gamel is most comfortable at the hot corner as well, saying, “I’ve been a third baseman since I can remember.”
So for now and the foreseeable future, Gamel will work on his game in Nashville, readying for a call to Milwaukee that both he and the Brewers hope is permanent. And he won’t assume a call-up is in the works, until he knows for sure.
“Right now, we’re just waiting for him to get more innings and at-bats under his belt and to be more successful at the Triple-A level,” Money said. “He had a very good year at the High-A level, a solid year last year and defensively got better. This year, we have to see him get better.
“Third base is just waiting for him in Milwaukee. It’s just a matter of time when he gets there.”