Gamel braced for starting duties at first
Hart also in mix after recovering from his own knee injury
PHOENIX -- Mat Gamel talked to reporters this week while carefully fitting a bulky black brace around his right knee. One strap at a time, he tightened the device that he hopes will carry him through the spring and into the regular season.
The Brewers have the same hope. With Corey Hart recovering from his own knee injury, Gamel is penciled in to be their Opening Day first baseman.
"I'm just looking at it like I got another opportunity," Gamel said.
And how is the knee holding up?
"I'm still learning it a little bit," Gamel said while pulling those straps tight. "That's where I'm at with it."
Gamel and the Brewers learned a little bit more on Saturday, when Gamel aggravated the joint and was an early scratch from the team's first full-squad workout. He participated in some running drills before consulting with assistant athletic trainer Dave Yeager, who sought another staff member to drive Gamel the several hundred yards back to the clubhouse for examination.
Through a member of the club's media relations department, assistant general manager Gord Ash said the Brewers were simply being cautious this early in camp.
Gamel will wear the brace as long as he deems it necessary, a reminder of the latest barrier blocking his path to Major League success. Before the physical wall that caused this particular injury, there was the series of Brewers third basemen who blocked Gamel's road to Milwaukee. There were questions from his own teammates about his commitment. There were ill-timed Spring Training injuries, and inconsistent playing time when he did make it to the Majors. There were reluctant moves from third base to the outfield to first base.
Last year was supposed to be different. Prince Fielder had departed in free agency and Gamel had been groomed as his replacement. He worked all winter with a personal trainer in Jacksonville and eliminated any doubt about his fitness. He hit .246 in April, but showed promise with the sweet left-handed swing that made him a .304 hitter and a top prospect over parts of seven seasons in the Minors.
Then came May 1.
The Brewers were in San Diego playing the Padres, and Gamel ranged into Petco Park's spacious foul ground, chasing a popup that would eventually find the seats. He collided awkwardly with the low, padded wall, twisted his knee and grimaced in pain before hitting the ground.
Just like that, Gamel's big break was a big bust. Three weeks later, when the swelling had subsided, he had season-ending surgery for a torn ACL.
Eventually, the Brewers filled the first-base vacancy with Hart, the former right fielder who was drafted as a first baseman and took to his old position like he was riding a bike. Hart played terrific defense while hitting .270 with 30 home runs and 83 RBIs.
He was to return as the first baseman, with Gamel in a utility role, before Hart suffered his own knee injury in December. He had surgery last month and will be sidelined at least until the end of April.
Manager Ron Roenicke has made clear that when Hart is healthy, he will be the first baseman. But Hart offered Gamel some words of support.
"Hopefully he goes out there and rakes and makes me go somewhere else," Hart said, before conceding, "I don't know if I can go anywhere else."
Said Gamel: "If they have plans to move me other places, so be it."
The wild card in this discussion is Hunter Morris, a 24-year-old coming off a breakthrough season at Double-A Huntsville, where he hit .303 with 28 home runs and 113 RBIs. Morris, MLB.com's fifth-best Brewers prospect, won the organization's Minor League Player of the Year Award and will get a long look in Spring Training.
Morris, who is not yet on the 40-man roster -- though he'll have to be added later this year -- said he expects to return to the Minors.
"I know Corey is going to be back quick and he's working hard in his rehab," Morris said. "Gamel is getting another opportuinity, which is great. I'm happy for him because he went out on such a bad note last year with the injury. He deserves a shot. He won the job rightly last year, and he deserves a shot again this year."
After surgery, Gamel spent last summer with the team, rehabbing at Miller Park when the Brewers were on the road and trying to stay out of the way when the team was home. On one hand, it was nice to be around baseball. On the other hand, it was a daily reminder that he was helpless.
"It was awesome," Gamel said, his voice dripping with sarcasm.
Then he got serious.
"It [stinks] being there and seeing what we went through in parts last year, especially knowing that I felt like I could have helped if healthy," Gamel said. "But that made it tough. But I think just being there and being around the team and the guys and everything, it helps to keep your morale up a little bit. I think it helped me stay more focused."
He made steady improvement all season and the Brewers had hoped Gamel would be ready to make up for lost time in winter ball. But that never happened, Gamel said, because the knee was not ready.
"I didn't want to go down there and, God forbid, something would have happened down there," Gamel said. "I would rather make sure my knee is ready to go for this."
Would he put a percentage on his health today?
"I would say I'm pretty close," Gamel said. "The more I'm doing, the more confident I'm going to be with everything."
It remains to be seen whether Saturday's aborted workout represents a setback. In the meantime, Gamel will continue to strap on that brace every day..
"If it keeps me on the field, then why not?" Gamel said.