- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
Fantasy owners will be debating for the next few months how to handle the draft-day dilemma that Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun presents. Braun is likely to be suspended for the first 50 games of the season. Obviously his is a story with other angles to it, as a 30-homer/30-steal player fights to get to 20/20 in barely two-thirds of a season, but one thing that shouldn't be glossed over is the rest of the Brewers' lineup. Yes, there are Brewers to watch even with Prince Fielder defecting to the American League and Braun likely absent for almost a third of the season!
The Brewers are going to score enough runs to matter, but one of the keys is 26-year-old Mat Gamel, a lefty-hitting corner infielder who has certainly proved himself against minor league pitching. Gamel has been on the fantasy radar for a while, but hey, in an Alex Gordon-kind of way, we must remember it takes some players years to emerge. Gamel was almost the Brewers' starting third baseman a few years ago, but journeyman Casey McGehee swooped in, took the job and ran with it in 2009. McGehee eventually flamed out, while Gamel smacked 28 home runs and posted a .912 OPS at Triple-A Nashville in 2011. In fact, he was good enough in 2010 to warrant supplanting the below-average McGehee, but Gamel still had to wait a year, in part because he couldn't play third base well enough defensively. Now, with the move to first base, he doesn't have to. He's really under the radar, and I love it.
I think the whole lineup protection thing (how it affects a hitter) is overrated. But I also can't overlook that when someone gets to hit in a typical run-producing slot, it creates opportunity. For example, second baseman Rickie Weeks might knock in 100 runs hitting cleanup for the 2012 Brewers; leading off he might get 70 RBIs. Look at the Brewers' lineup without its top two hitters from last season, and I see opportunity. Gamel is a somewhat forgotten prospect who will fit nicely into the No. 5 or 6 lineup slot. In fact, don't be surprised when he hits well enough to protect Braun in the order.
Gamel made his big league debut with a few at-bats all the way back in 2008. Detractors can point out his measly .222 big league batting average over 171 at-bats spread out over four seasons, but that means nothing to me. The division-winning Brewers thought enough of his bat to promote him for designated hitter duties at Yankee Stadium and Target Field last season, and they haven't overreacted this winter by signing some 35-year-old to replace Fielder. Gamel struck out only once in 20 at-bats against right-handers last season. He didn't thrive, but he wasn't exactly overmatched.
Don't expect Gamel to be overmatched this season, either. The Brewers couldn't afford Fielder, but they could have found someone else to handle first base. They know Gamel will hit, at least against right-handed pitching. Gamel is third base-eligible in ESPN leagues, having appeared there three times for the Brewers in 2011 (twice at first base and the outfield). That's good! First base is deep! Third base is better than a year ago, but being able to draft someone -- or pick him up on free agency, for those in standard leagues - who has looming multi-position eligibility will be nice. In standard leagues, I can see ignoring him initially (on draft day), but he's going to be a factor at some point. He might be your utility guy. Regardless, don't be surprised if Gamel paces the team in home runs and RBIs in April.
With that, here are my thoughts on what remains of the Brewers lineup:
1. Nyjer Morgan, CF: Morgan really needs to be platooned with Carlos Gomez; Morgan hit .316 against right-handed pitching last season and .209 against lefties, and Gomez can hit the occasional home run against lefties. Morgan is two years removed from a 34-steal season, so it's possible he'll matter more than he did in 2011, but he misses my top-60 outfielders because there is playing-time risk. As in, he might not play as much as you think.
2. Rickie Weeks, 2B: Speaking of risk ... Weeks has played in more than 130 games just once in his eight-year career, and he doesn't steal bases anymore. The power is legit, but it comes at a price. He's my No. 8 second baseman, but I'm unlikely to seek him out.
3. Ryan Braun, LF: Well, for 105 games or so, he'll be hitting third; he's an early-third-round pick for me under those circumstances. If he somehow beats the rap, he goes No. 1 overall. As for the games he misses, plan on Norichika Aoki getting a chance. Aoki is a 30-year-old contact hitter in Japan. If he has a good April/May, he could keep a starting role, move to center field, push Morgan/Gomez aside and lead off.
4. Aramis Ramirez, 3B: I'm not excited about Ramirez's future. His home/road splits as a Chicago Cub are revealing, as he hit .329 at Wrigley Field over the past three seasons and .246 on the road. His career mark at Miller Park is .270. Toss in that Ramirez is now 33 and has averaged 127 games played over the past five seasons, and I question his durability, as well. I have 10 third basemen ranked better than Ramirez for this season. Then again, it's worth noting that he's likely to hit third in this lineup if/while Braun is suspended.
5. Corey Hart, RF: I'd bat him first, personally. As the leadoff hitter last season (in 62 games), he hit .301 with 15 home runs and a .917 OPS, and scored 47 runs. No, he doesn't steal bases anymore, but he does get on base. Bat your top players early. Hart is far better than Morgan/Gomez offensively. He's also a top-20 outfielder.
6. Mat Gamel, 1B: Give him 500 at-bats and I see more than 20 home runs and 85 RBIs. As the lone lefty power bat, he could also split the right-handers and hit cleanup, and remember, he's third base-eligible, too. He's among my top 20 at third base.
8. Alex Gonzalez, SS: Just say no to the 15 home runs and albatross for your team's batting average. But hey, at least his defense helps his pitchers.
And those are your 2012 Brewers hitters. Will they score another 700-plus runs sans a Prince and with only two-thirds of Ryan Braun? Yeah, I think they will.