It was pretty disappointing to see Milwaukee Brewers first baseman Mat Gamel tear the ACL in his right knee running into a non-padded wall at Petco Park this week. Perhaps Gamel wouldn't have had the season I hoped for, which would have been roughly 20 home runs and 80 RBIs, but it was also too early to call the team's decision to give him the first-base job upon the defection of free-agent Prince Fielder a failure. Now we won't know until next spring.
However, the defending NL Central champions have a problem, because I don't think fill-in Travis Ishikawa possesses any semblance of power to be a regular first baseman. Rumors have veteran minor league switch-hitter Brooks Conrad expecting a big league promotion this week as a potential platoon partner for Ishikawa, but that wouldn't inspire much confidence for Brewers fans or fantasy owners in NL-only formats or really deep leagues either. Ishikawa is known for his defense and Conrad has some pop, but the Brewers can do better.
There is also talk that free-agent Derrek Lee, who played for the Chicago Cubs, Atlanta Braves, Baltimore Orioles and Pittsburgh Pirates in the past two seasons alone could get a call. Lee is past his prime but still hit 19 home runs in both 2010 and 2011. If Lee signed, I would not call him a must-add in 10- or 12-team standard leagues, but don't dismiss him either. Lee hit .349 with five home runs last September for the Bucs. I'd spend a few bucks on Lee in an NL-only format, knowing the Brewers and perhaps Los Angeles Dodgers (James Loney is slugging .347) become interested.
What the Brewers do have is other options, one that has been discussed and another I haven't heard. As for the obvious one, Corey Hart, the right fielder off to a tremendous start despite undergoing March knee surgery that was supposed to hamper him in April, has been taking grounders at first base. Hart ranks 21st on the Player Rater among outfielders despite not knocking in a run for the past week. I see him hitting .280 with 25 home runs, and it's never a problem when a player one already owns adds eligibility. Hart has started one game in his career at first base, but with Fielder around, there was never a need. Now there is.
The reason why moving Hart to first base makes sense, rather than some combination of powerless Ishikawa, defensive liability Conrad or the aged Lee, is because the Brewers have three outfielders for essentially one spot at this point. In addition to the awesome (still) Ryan Braun, the Brewers have choices. Entering Thursday, Nyjer Morgan was struggling with a .175 batting average, zero extra-base hits and one walk, but he's better than that. He's platooning with speedster/defensive asset Carlos Gomez, and Japanese import Norichika Aoki was generally being used off the bench.
Aoki is hitting .269 in 26 at-bats, but he has good bat control and plate discipline and can steal bases. He can't steal bases like Gomez, who is 5-for-7 so far, but Aoki is a sound player who used to elicit comparisons in Japan to Ichiro Suzuki. Aoki hit .358 with 14 home runs and 19 stolen bases in 2010. I'm not one to overrate Japanese statistics by any means, but I think if Aoki played regularly for the Brewers, he'd be an upgrade on Morgan and Gomez, hit around .270 and reach double digits in steals. If Hart moved to first base, he could get that chance.
There are four Brewers hitters owned in all leagues (Braun, Hart, third baseman Aramis Ramirez and second baseman Rickie Weeks) and scant interest for the other hitters. Gomez has proven himself to be incapable of hitting big league pitchers on any regular basis; the former Mets prospect, once the key to the Johan Santana trade, has a career OBP of .292. The cheap steals are nice, but he's a fourth outfielder that can start only against left-handed pitching. Should he play more, however, he's worth a look in deep leagues for the steals.
Morgan is a fourth outfielder as well. He helped key Milwaukee's run to the postseason in 2011 by hitting .304, but he looks awful this year. If you have Morgan in an NL-only league, you might be considering cutting him. That's a mistake, though I certainly wouldn't target him. Morgan is a career .305 hitter against right-handed pitching, and he's at .179 this season. He should get better.
As for Aoki, it's certainly possible regular playing time would expose him and he'd struggle to reach base. He wouldn't be the first hitter to come from Japan that couldn't recapture past glory. Still, if the Brewers use Hart at first base, consider Aoki in deep leagues.
There's one other option I have not seen discussed: Ramirez is a terrible third baseman defensively. Choose whatever defensive metrics you like (except errors, please), but he's not good and hasn't been for years. Wouldn't the Brewers be better off moving Ramirez to first base and giving blocked third-base prospect Taylor Green a shot?
Green hit .336 for Triple-A Nashville last season with 22 home runs and 36 doubles. A lefty hitter, Green made some think he was ready for big league duty, as ready as Gamel, which made the Ramirez signing so disappointing. Now there's room for both.
He started slowly this season, but Green has four multihit games out of five. Over his past 10 games for the Sounds he's hitting .359 with a .919 OPS and more walks than strikeouts. The best part if the Brewers give him a chance, other than the offensive potential, is that he's second-base eligible for fantasy. That's right, Green played seven games at second base and only five at the hot corner in his brief stint for the Brewers. Here's to hoping Green -- and Aoki, to some degree -- get the chance to play.