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Do the Brewers really need LHP insurance on Gamel?

There seem to be two schools of thought when it comes to Mat Gamel. Generally, one camp believes that the Brewers organization has a history of being consistently inconsistent with Gamel, jerking him around and never really giving him a shot. And generally, the other camp believes that Gamel has been given plenty of chances and wasted them by showing up out of shape, possibly contributing to his injury problems.

Both sides make good points. And both sides can be a little…intense. For that reason, Gamel is going to be one of the most-watched (and most-scrutinized) players on the roster this spring. He’s going to be dealing with an incredible amount of pressure, and he’s going to need the support of management if things don’t go well right away.

Doug Melvin appeared on The Big 1070 in Madison on Monday, and was asked about replacing Fielder’s offense at first, and backup plans for Gamel.

“Mat Gamel’s going to be given every opportunity at first base and he’s gonna have to step up and show us he’s a big league player.”

Well, what if he doesn’t?

“We’re going to talk to Corey Hart, see if he can play a little first base. He did in the minor leagues. I don’t expect him to go over there and be a gold glover or anything like that. So Ron was going to call Corey and see what his thoughts were on doing it, see if he’s interested. First base is not as easy a position as people think to play. … So it’s not even close to where people think ‘Just throw him over there and play first base.’ I find it can be one of the harder positions to play, and when I think people think ‘just throw somebody over there,’ it’s not that easy. A guy coming in to play first, it’s not an easy move, but we’re going to ask Corey to see if he could play, you know, maybe 30 games there.”

Now, it would be easy to overreact to this if you’re a Gamel supporter, but 30 games isn’t a ton. Will the Brewers need that insurance against left-handed pitching, though?

As quite a few people pointed out on Twitter, it could translate into Hart basically being a soft platoon partner for Gamel, playing first when the Brewers play a tough lefty. That’s a far cry from showing a lack of faith in Gamel, and as Melvin noted, it’s not as easy as just throwing Hart at first. He’d likely need to spend a decent amount of time taking grounders this spring, and keep working on it throughout the season. Basically, if they’re going with this plan and have it be successful, they’re going to need Hart to get to work at first almost as soon as he reports to camp. That’s a lot of time to spend on an insurance policy.

Gamel did struggle against lefties last season at Nashville, hitting just .213/.280/.375 against them. That’s an ugly slash line, but it’s really the first time he’s struggled across the board like that against southpaws. Take a look at his recent splits for yourself.

In 2010, Gamel hit .237/.348/.421 in 89 plate appearances, still showing that good eye at the plate and hitting for a bit of power. In 2009, the line was much better in a similarily small sample size, as he hit .333/.390/.680 in 82 plate appearances. Back in 2008, Gamel’s Double-A numbers against lefties were even better — he hit .358/.423/.543 in 168 plate appearances.

The recent struggles could be concerning, but they could also be a little cosmetic. In 2010, Gamel had a line drive rate of 26.3% while facing lefties. His groundball rate was 38.6%, while posting a 33.3% flyball rate and 5.3% popup rate. In 2009, despite the stronger slash line, Gamel actually hit less line drives (25%) and popped the ball up more (5.8%).

In 2009, despite the stronger-looking slash line, Gamel actually made less solid contact against southpaws — 25% line drive rate, 26.9% groundball rate, 46.2% flyball rate, and a 5.8% popup rate. With Huntsville in 2008, Gamel’s line drive rate against lefties was even lower, at 20.7%. He hit the ball on the ground 43.1% of the time, and popped it up 7.8% of the time.

So while Gamel’s AVG/OBP/SLG numbers against lefties have declined over the past few years, there’s reason for optimism: it appears he’s hitting the ball hard against lefties, just having a hard time getting balls to drop for hits. When you’re talking about tiny 80-PA samples, that’s going to happen.

The question, though, is if Gamel is going to get that many plate appearances against lefties before someone like Hart jumps in at first base. If Ryan Braun is going to be missing for the first 50 games of the season, the Brewers may not be in the mood to wait for Gamel to come around if the offense is struggling as a whole.