In an ideal alternate world, the Brewers have a first baseman in reserve to replace Prince Fielder. I am envisioning someone with top-prospect pedigree, a proven track record of hitting well in the minors, and experience at first base. And hopefully this is a player who is not a raw prospect just out of AA, but a guy who has hit in his opportunities but has not gotten an opportunity to play in the majors yet-- his costs are low, but he's hopefully entering the prime of his career. Maybe this fellow is something like Ryan Howard, who did not play full time in the majors until his age 26 season, after the Phillies traded Jim Thome to clear a spot for him.
A player like this is not going to replace Prince Fielder's production, and is not going to come particularly close to replacing Prince Fielder's production. No available first baseman (outside of Pujols) can. But if he can provide average production, with a bit of upside, it will allow the Brewers to upgrade spots like shortstop, third base, and relief pitching, to make this team something close to as good as it was in 2011.
Look around the league a bit and it becomes pretty clear that the player who best fits this profile is Mat Gamel (I'm sure I wasn't holding anyone in too much suspense with that indirect introduction). Is he a great, foolproof option? Of course not. Is he the best option? I think so, and here I'm going to lay out my reasons for thinking so.
It's easy to forget how much potential scouts saw in Gamel such a short time ago, and now he's like the forgotten man. I remember hoping that LaPorta was included in the Sabathia package instead of Gamel (which was quite a debate at the time). Gamel was second on Baseball America's Top Ten prospect list in 2009, and he was third going into 2010. He peaked at #1 on Brewerfan.net's Power 50. And all throughout his stay in the minors, there has never been anyone who has questioned his track record as a hitter.
At A+ he hit .292/.375/.459 in 560 PAs
At AA he hit .332/.399/.539 in 604 PAs
At AAA he hit .301/.374/.512 in 1247 PAs
What's holding back the perception of Mat Gamel? It's his line over all 194 plate appearances he's received as a member of the Brewers:
In 2009, he hit .242/.338/.422, a roughly average hitting line, as a 23 year old.
In 2010 and 2011, he's received 44 plate appearances, and hit .146/.205/.195.
Apparently some people perceive Gamel as having attitude or training problems. I don't know the guy, so I'm not going to comment on that. All I know is, If he had not gotten those 44 plate appearances over the past two years in the majors, I bet a lot more people would be hoping he's the man for first base last year. 44 plate appearances is a very small amount of plate appearances. 2,411 plate appearances is a very large amount of plate appearances. Going forward, I'm going to expect he's a lot more like the guy who crushes the ball in the minors than the guy who has struggled in the bigs.
Gamel's not the perfect option. If he's the first basemen, I am prepared for a whole year of adventures with him in the field, but if he's going to get better it's going to be by playing. He's an athletic enough guy, hopefully he can improve, as Rickie Weeks has in his time in the majors. Sure, it would be nice to re-sign Fielder, but that's no fun. If you're interested in winning at baseball without an unlimited payroll, sometimes you have to show up at Scott Hatteberg's house and convince him to play first base. Sometimes you have to play Mat Gamel and hope he comes through for you, because sometimes that's the best option.
I'd much rather spend money on an actual shortstop, and bringing back Saito or Hawkins, and ride with Gamel at first this year than to drop significant money on a Carlos Pena or Derrek Lee, who will probably cost about all the money the Brewers have available, and whose upside is probably below Gamel's at this point. I hope Doug Melvin agrees.