Waiver Wire Offseason: NLby Michael Street
November 27, 2009
Mat Gamel | Milwaukee | 3B
2009 Final Stats: .242/.338/.422
Brewers fans have been itching for a long look at Gamel, the team's top hitting prospect, at the major-league level, and they finally got their wishes in 2009. Unfortunately, by the time he got to the bigs, his way was blocked by a guy named Casey McGehee, and hampered by his own performance at the plate.
Gamel was mashing AAA pitching in April, with a .403/.483/.806 line that included 7 HRs and 8 2Bs, and got his first callup in mid-May as interleague play approached and the Crew figured they could use him at DH. Then Rickie Weeks went down for the season, and Milwaukee had the perfect opportunity to give him more PT; Craig Counsell and McGehee could both play 2B or 3B and Gamel could slide into the 3B rotation.
Even though he stayed with the big league club, that's not how things worked out, which speaks volumes about how Milwaukee regards Gamel. His biggest liability at this point is his glove—he has an .883 career fielding percentage in the minors, with 156 errors in 1334 chances. That he booted 7 balls in 61 chances in the majors (with an .885 fielding percentage) shows those struggles are continuing. Milwaukee really doesn't think the merits of his bat overcomes the deficits of his glove.
And his bat wasn't all that meritorious in the majors, either. He started out hot, hitting .308/.438/.692 in his first 13 ABs (mostly as a pinch-hitter) then cooled off dramatically, hitting just .224/.322/.329 over his next 76 ABs through the end of June, with 11 BBs and 30 Ks. After he only started 6 of 14 games through mid-July, the team decided to give him more seasoning in AAA, instead of sporadic PT in the bigs.
Gamel's funk carried over into the minors, where he hit .118/.225/.147 to close out July, then had OPSes of .751 and .669 in August and September. Despite this, the Brewers brought him back up to the big-league club in September, where he continued to collect splinters on the bench, even after Milwaukee was out of the pennant chase entirely. He collected just one start in 24 team games, though he hit .267/.353/533. Why they didn't give him a longer look at this point in the season, with the pennant out of reach and both Counsell and McGehee nursing knee injuries, is a mystery.
In the long run, the extra time in AAA should prove beneficial to Gamel, since he'd only had 21 ABs at that level before this season. He did improve his defense there somewhat, booting just 18 balls in 201 chances for a fielding percentage of .901. But even that may not be enough for him to occupy the 3B position the Brewers have been holding open for him, especially with the emergence of Casey McGehee. And before you suggest a platoon between RH McGehee and LH Gamel (or even Counsell, if he's re-signed), realize that Gamel's platoon splits have been almost even in his minor-league career, and turning this 23-year-old into half a player at this point in his career would be a waste.
The other possible position for him, 1B, is of course blocked by the formidable presence of Prince Fielder. Barring a trade of either Gamel or McGehee (or, even less likely, Fielder), it looks like his best fit will be as a corner outfielder. But there, too, he's blocked by Ryan Braun and Corey Hart. So you should expect a trade of Hart, McGehee or Gamel, in that order, before the 2010 season opens to resolve that logjam and to bolster their starting pitching, worst in the NL in 2009.
The Brewers have already indicated that they won't part with Gamel for anything less than "his equivalent in pitching," something most teams are unlikely to do at this stage of Gamel's career. A trade to an AL team would allow Gamel to slide into what might be his best position, DH, but there's not many teams willing to pay such a steep price for a guy who never wears a glove. So I'd expect to see Gamel in Milwaukee spring training, ready to prove himself at 3B or RF.
How will he perform? No matter where he ends up, he's going to need to improve his batting eye and contact rate. His .50 minor-league BB/K rate has actually dropped as he ascended each level, as has his .77 contact rate. Scouts say he has the skills, with great batspeed and a good batting eye, so these ratios suggest he's pressing, adjusting, or both. That's not quite the trend you want to see from a talent like this, but he's still only 23, so there's plenty of time to turn it around, even if progress might be slow.
Keeper owners will want to keep this in mind—don't expect him to be your 3B of the future, and don't expect him to reach his full potential in 2010. He'll be a very good hitter one day, wherever he ends up fitting into the lineup, though he profiles as an excellent #5 hitter behind Braun and Fielder. But moderate your expectations heading into 2010, particularly if he goes into Spring Training still blocked by both Hart and McGehee.
Corey Hart | Milwaukee | RF
2009 Final Stats: .260/.335/.418
Brewers fans and fantasy owners sat up and took notice when Hart burst onto the scene in 2007 with a .295/.353/.539 in his first full season at the majors. When he followed that up with two straight seasons of decline, the same fans and owners have turned their backs on him. 2008 saw him slip to .268/.300/.459, and 2009 saw that fall even farther, and his HR and RBI totals have also dropped in corresponding fashion.
There's some explanation for these statistics, however. In 2008 it looked like he was pressing to return to his 2007 heights, as his batting eye fell from .36 to .25. Luck was a factor, too—his BABIP also dropped from .321 to .293 and his HR/FB% fell from 13 to 9.8 over the same span. In 2009, he returned his BB/K ratio to .47, and his BABIP rose to a more expected .305. His HR rate dropped again to 8.7%, despite continuing to hit fly balls at the same rate.
An emergency appendectomy cut his 2009 season short, making his one awful month weigh even more heavily against his overall numbers. May 2009, he hit .232/.283/.343, one of his worst months ever, but he'd improved in June (typically a strong month for him) and July, before losing a month to the appendectomy.
He returned in September and finished the season with an eight-game hit streak, but the operation had clearly sapped his power, not surprising, since it sliced open and weakened his trunk muscles. Only 3 of his 14 hits went for extra bases, and he hit .237/.338/.322 in September, another month among his worst ever. So you could argue that 2009 was the Tale of Two Months, while 2008 was a lot of bad luck. He's definitely undervalued going into 2010, and represents a good bounceback candidate.
With Gamel looking for a position and both Braun and Fielder ready to launch the Brewers into the stratosphere, the front office may not wait until 2010 to see if Hart does. In Milwaukee's quest for more pitching, Hart is their best trading chip. Though his value is obviously diminished by his past two seasons, he's still a guy with enough speed to swipe bases (23 each in '07 and '08) with the contact skills (.80 career) to suggest that a rebound is likely, though probably not to the luck-induced levels of 2007. He shouldn't become a free agent until 2012, and his arbitration value should make negotiations with him cheap and easy.
Watch the Brewers' offseason moves; their swap of J.J. Hardy shows they have no sentimental attachments to a slumping farm system product if they need to make room for another one they think is better, and that's precisely the small-market model they should be following. He's not a lock to be traded, since he could still be re-signed cheaply, but I'd put the probability at 80% that he'll be playing with another team in 2010.
As for what you should look for, I'd anticipate a rebound into the .825 OPS range with 20+ SBs, 20+ HRs and RBIs approaching 100, with an average pushing .300. That's not elite level, but that's a really nice corner outfielder for a team willing to gamble that he's going to finally live up to his promise. Fantasy owners should find him a buy-low candidate as well, even if he's not going to see that 900 OPS level again.
Ben Sheets | Milwaukee | SP
2008 Final Stats: 7.2 K/9, 3.4 K/BB, 3.09 ERA
Brewers fans had to see this coming: in his first (supposedly) healthy season since 2004, Ben Sheets ended 2008 early with a tear in his elbow. It didn't seem bad at first, so Sheets declined Milwaukee's offer of arbitration, figuring on greener pastures elsewhere. It didn't quite work out that way, though. A deal with the Rangers was killed after the elbow injury turned out to be a torn flexor tendon, which shut Sheets down for all of 2009.
This isn't a serious injury by baseball standards; it's a severe form of tennis elbow (which is why they didn't think it was so bad at first), and players from Andy Pettitte to Victor Zambrano have gone under the knife for it, with clearly mixed results. Pettite underwent this surgery in 2004, and came back to pitch a 17-9 year in Houston, with a 2.39 ERA and a 1.03 WHIP, one of his best seasons ever. His elbow's been healthy ever since. Zambrano, on the other hand, had the surgery midway through the 2006 season then returned in 2007, his last season in the majors, to post a 10.17 ERA in just 23 IP; he was likely on the downslope of his career at this point anyway, but this surgery didn't help.
That gives you the spectrum of possibilities on this surgery, and makes Sheets so hard to predict—and sign. When he's healthy, Sheets has been awesome. In his best season, 2004, he ended with a 2.70 ERA and 0.98 WHIP , with a 8.25 K/BB rate that led the majors, thanks in part to a 10.0 K/9 that was the best in his career. But he also threw 237 IP, his third straight season of 200+ IP—and the beginning of his injury trouble.
Since then, he's shown occasional brilliance, with excellent control, great strikeout numbers and an ability to keep the ball in the yard. In 2006, his 9.8 K/9 and 0.9 BB/9 gave him a career-best 10.6 K/BB, though his 106.1 IP were his fewest since that 2004 IP spike. In 2009, he threw 198.1 IP, his highest total since 2004, with a 7.2 K/9, 2.1 BB/9 and 0.8 HR/9 that all contributed to a 3.09 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, and a 13-9 record that represented the most wins since 2004.
That injury flag, however, may overshadow all his other accomplishments. Pitching is scarce enough that Sheets will get signed somewhere, probably at a discount because of that injury history. That's the same discount that you should apply to him as a fantasy owner. He could approach 200 IP again, with good strikeout rates, or he could struggle to regain his control and/or get injured again.
Where he pitches will also be a consideration. A shift to the AL will clearly make a difference to a guy who's only pitched in the NL (the Rangers are one of his rumored destinations). He's also a fly ball pitcher, with a career 0.74 GB/FB ratio, one that has been closer to 0.70 of late. Miller Park is fairly forgiving, and a home run park like Great American or Citizen's Bank wouldn't be the best place for him to end up, either. That would make Texas an awful place for him to end up.
So watch Sheets to see where he lands and how he does in Spring Training before deciding how much to bid for him, but he becomes a moderate gamble in any park, with the odds for a good season decreasing, depending on his home team. He's a mid-round pick in a straight draft, and a mid-dollar gamble in an auction draft.
Don't ignore him, but don't chase 2004, or even 2009, numbers, either. Personally, I'd only take him in the late rounds or for a $2-5 bid. The chances of him exceeding those values is much lower than the chances of him imploding entirely, and I'm going to let someone else gloat that they got him for a buck.
That's all for this week--leave me your suggestions in the comments for other players you'd like me to cover. Next week, we'll look at Chris Ianetta, Geovany Soto and Joe Blanton.
In December, Acta Sports will publish the 2010 GRAPHICAL PLAYER. Besides covering a pair of teams apiece, Rob and I are Associate Editors of this edition. If you enjoy Waiver Wire—if you want the edge that you get here at THT Fantasy—then the 2010 GRAPHICAL PLAYER is your book. It'll be like going into your draft with Rob and me looking over your shoulder. (THTF's minor-league maven Matt Hagen is also a contributor.)
Next week, we'll begin incorporating GP profiles into our Waiver Wire columns. Until then, here is a 16-page preview of the book. You can order the book from Acta Sports here.
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