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CBSSports.com Senior Baseball Columnist

Brewers camp report: Can a late bloomer replace Prince?

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To make sure he's ready for his chance, Mat Gamel spent the offseason with a personal trainer. (US Presswire)  
To make sure he's ready for his chance, Mat Gamel spent the offseason with a personal trainer. (US Presswire)  

PHOENIX -- Seven years, he's been a loyal employee. Started at the bottom rung in the company. Had some good days at the office, had some tough ones. Kept plugging away through all of it.

Now he's being considered for the promotion of a lifetime.

Been there? Know someone who has?

Then this probably sounds familiar: "I believe in what I can do," he says. "And in what I've done."

His name is not Prince Fielder, by the way.

It's Mat Gamel.

And as the Brewers prepare for their encore this spring following the best season in franchise history -- 96 wins -- one thing will be true above all others in 2012:

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If Gamel is to grab permanent hold of first base and if the Brewers are to continue their winning ways that have attracted three million paying customers in three of the past four years ... well, then, the story will not be simply about a 26-year-old late-bloomer.

Because ain't no way one man is going to replace a Prince.

"Nobody is expecting that," Brewers starter Shaun Marcum says. "It would be tough for anybody.

"We don't expect him to hit 30 homers and drive in 120. We expect him to hit behind runners, move runners over. ..."

Nobody is expecting him to replicate the 28 home runs he clubbed in Triple-A Nashville last season. But if he can hit the gaps and knock a few over the wall and drive in some key runs, it will help with the math.

Coming off of the NL Central title, the Brewers are still hoping to get the same result this year. But GM Doug Melvin is just working the numbers a little differently.

The thought is for Gamel and new third baseman Aramis Ramirez, who hit 26 homers and had 83 RBI for the Cubs last season, to combine for a reasonable portion of what Fielder and former third baseman Casey McGehee produced last year: A total of 51 homers and 187 RBI.

Realistic?

"It's like any other thing," catcher Jonathan Lucroy says. "Every player, at one point or another, had to apply for a spot to make the team."

Fantasy Writer
Bust ... Aramis Ramirez, 3B: Ramirez did last year more or less what he has done over the last 11 years, so Fantasy owners have little reason to doubt him in his move from Chicago to Milwaukee, right? Well, not exactly. Ramirez's 2011 season may not stand out as anything exceptional over the entirety of his career but compared the previous two years it was a full-fledged outlier. It was the first time during that stretch he played as many as 125 games, finishing with nearly 150. That alone gave him a boost in the rankings that Fantasy owners seem to think he's going to sustain. But let's be reasonable: He turns 34 this year. A player that age with that injury history will get hurt at some point and if his numbers begin to decline along with it he could easily drop out of the top 12 at the position. It's coming sooner than later. Why take the risk when you can land a Pablo Sandoval at about the same point in the draft?
Sleeper ... Mat Gamel, 3B: After biding his time at Triple-A for most of the last three seasons, Gamel is poised to replace Prince Fielder at first base this year. It won't be the first time the career .304 minor-league hitter had a shot at regular at-bats -- that came in 2009, when relative unknown Casey McGehee seized the third base job from him -- but it is the first time he's been the overwhelming favorite. So why isn't there more hype in Fantasy? For one thing, Gamel is already 26, so he doesn't exactly qualify as a prospect anymore. For another, he hasn't impressed in his brief major-league opportunities so far. To be fair, though, the Brewers haven't cared to give him the benefit of the doubt, unwilling to live through his defensive lapses at third base for no more than prospective production. With him at first that's not an issue anymore. He'll have all the time he needs to get comfortable and if his minor-league numbers are any indication he'll be an impact player as a result. -- Scott White
Depth Chart | Brewers outlook | 2012 Draft Prep

Gamel, from Jacksonville, Fla., was the Brewers' fourth-round pick in the '05 draft. Came up as a third baseman. Made his major-league debut three years later, in '08. Wound up with 194 plate appearances over the past four years for the Brewers, hitting .222 with five homers and 23 RBI.

"You never want to see a guy like Prince leave," Gamel says. "But for me, I needed a spot to open up."

The Brewers tried to retain Fielder. But they also were realistic. Two summers ago, at season's end, Nashville manager Don Money approached and told Gamel the club wanted him to get some work in at first base. Never mentioned Fielder's name. But it didn't take Gamel long to figure it out.

"I was kind of hesitant at first base because I still wanted to play third," he says.

Then last spring Melvin, assistant GM Gord Ash and manager Ron Roenicke triple-teamed him. They told him they wanted him to play first all season in Nashville.

"It was not a matter of, I don't want to do it," he says. "It was a matter of, if that's what I have to do to one day be an everyday player on the club, then I'm going to do it."

Once, he was a hot prospect. He played in the Futures Game in 2008. But he was slowed by injuries in each of the past three springs. Some of it was bad luck. Some of it wasn't. Last year, he came to camp overweight and wound up with a strained rib cage. You get out of things what you put into them.

"He's had a couple of years where he put up numbers in the minor leagues," Melvin says. "But he's had some other issues where he's taken some guidance. We've had to sit down with him. His agent has had to sit down with him.

"But he's worked hard at it."

He hired a personal trainer last fall. Changed the way he eats. Cut his hair. Improved his posture. Cleaned up his appearance. Yes, the Brewers notice such things.

"He's coming to the park better prepared," Melvin says. "He's carrying himself better.

"He's looking like a ballplayer, instead of taking things for granted."

Though it directly helped shape his future, Gamel says he didn't obsess on the play-by-play of Milwaukee's negotiations with Fielder over the winter.

"Honestly, no, man," Gamel says. "I wasn't trying to think about it. I was preparing myself like I never have, and hoping I had an opportunity.

"I was fortunate when everything worked out, that I have a good opportunity. You hate seeing Prince leave, but that's the way the game goes."

The Brewers are handing him nothing. Though he is the clear front-runner to win the job, the Brewers are working Hart some at first this spring, too.

They think Gamel is up to this challenge. But they need options just in case. Speaking of which, Gamel has none left, which is why he will get every opportunity to win the gig.

"He should know the situation he's walking into," Roenicke says. "He's got a mission. It will help him in the long run, as long as he doesn't put too much pressure on himself."

Once, in 2007, he put together a 33-game hitting streak for Class A Brevard County. The 28 homers at Nashville last season were the most pop he's shown. A lefty, one early challenge will be facing lefty pitchers.

Milwaukee is the only professional job he's ever known. He wants to stay right where he's at. But now comes the big promotion to the corner office.

Can he keep it?

"I'm hoping," he says, "to make them look good this year for giving me the opportunity."

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