2019 Salary: $567,700
2020 Projection: $1.6 million
Through no fault of his own, Ben Gamel might’ve been the least popular addition to the 2019 Brewers at the start of the season.
The main piece the Brewers acquired in exchange for Domingo Santana (with Noah Zavolas being the other piece), more than a few saw him as a weak-hitting outfielder whose bat wouldn’t help the Brewers as much as Santana’s would. That was a feeling that was only reinforced by Santana’s hot start to the season with Seattle, but in the end, Gamel ended up being the better player -- maybe that wasn’t that hard, considering Santana finished with 0.0 fWAR despite hitting 21 home runs in 451 at-bats.
Gamel finished the year hitting .248/.337/.373 in 356 plate appearances for the Brewers, with defensive contributions good enough to give him 0.9 fWAR for the year. The offensive boost from switching from T-Mobile Park (formerly known as Safeco Field) to Miller Park never really materialized, although Gamel did hit 7 home runs after only hitting one in 293 plate appearances in 2018. His .308 wOBA and 87 wRC+ in 2019 were actually steps back from his 2018 production with Seattle, and while he did draw slightly more walks with the Brewers (11.2% BB% compared to 10.6% the year before), he also struck out significantly more (29.2% this year, compared to just 20.8% last year).
While none of those numbers are particularly good, the truth is he was never added to be an offensive presence. The entire reason the Brewers preferred him over Santana as their 4th outfielder was because of his defensive versatility, and that came in handy frequently in 2019, whether it was covering for Ryan Braun’s workload management, stepping in for a banged-up Lorenzo Cain, or filling in when Christian Yelich was on the injured list.
He was perfectly adequate defensively at all three outfield spots, despite maybe not having the best speed or throwing arm, getting positive marks in Defensive Runs Saved in both corners (+4 in left field, +1 in right field) and breaking even in center.
Put it all together, and you have a perfectly average -- yet perfectly replaceable -- reserve outfielder.
And that’s where the problem may come in for Gamel as he becomes arbitration eligible for the first time. Not only does the salary increase, but also the baseline for what’s considered acceptable performance. He’d still likely be worth the $1 million and change with that kind of production, but David Stearns & Co. may feel there are similar options out there.
That’s only complicated by the presence of Trent Grisham, who the organization is high on after his breakout 2018 season, and who does a lot of the same things Gamel does, and does a lot of them better (and for a cheaper price). A million-dollar raise for Gamel isn’t outrageous, and by arbitration standards is really pretty mild. But if the team is saving up for other spending this winter -- and by the looks of them trading Chase Anderson and declining Eric Thames’ option is any indication, they’re at the very least looking to save where they can -- maybe non-tendering Gamel would be another way to find some change in the couch cushions.
One thing that might work in Gamel’s favor, though, is his versatility in another way -- while he was sent down to the minors briefly in 2019, his last minor league option -- the thing that separated him from Santana in the first place -- is still intact. While the Brewers are excited about Grisham’s future, Gamel’s option could allow them to keep both -- either with one starting the year in Triple-A, or even with both on the roster in some scenarios (likely the ones that involve Braun giving first base another try).
Even if Mark Attanasio is willing to spend for free agents -- whether it’s new adds or trying to keep someone like Yasmani Grandal -- teams like the Brewers will always be looking to get creative (and let’s just say “efficient”) with their last few roster spots. That worked in Gamel’s favor with the Brewers last offseason. It may work against him this time.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs