Gamel, Brewers adjusting to roles post-Fielder
MILWAUKEE — Reporters huddled in front of Mat Gamel's locker Friday evening, and the questions regarding the "Prince formerly known as a Brewer" seemed inevitable.
After tallying two hits in his first Opening Day start, Gamel was asked about the importance of his performance given the man whose shoes he'd now be filling in Milwaukee.
"Who's shoes am I filling?" Gamel remarked.
Even if Gamel slyly attempts to downplay the situation, it's hard to ignore the absence of Prince Fielder, the big man with big shoes who used to occupy first base for the Brewers.
Fielder's powerful presence made him a leader on the team during his seven seasons with Milwaukee. Last season, he batted .299 with 38 home runs and 120 RBI and became one of the faces of a team that captured its first division title in 29 years.
But when he signed as a free agent in the offseason to a nine-year, $214 million contract with the Detroit Tigers, a serious void was left behind in Milwaukee's lineup. And somebody needed to undertake the unenviable task of replacing him.
Gamel, 26, had been stuck mostly with the Brewers Triple-A team in Nashville since 2008. He recorded just 26 major league at-bats last season with three hits (.115 batting average). But he's also a career .301 hitter in four seasons in Triple A.
Now that Fielder is gone, the starting role at first base finally belongs to Gamel, although he recognizes it will take more than one player to make up for Fielder's production.
"I'm not here to replace anyone," Gamel said. "You never want to see a guy like Prince leave, but we still want to win. I'm here to do my part and help with that.
"No one in this game can replace Prince and what he brought. I'm not here to try."
Though Gamel is playing the same position as Fielder, it's newly-acquired third baseman Aramis Ramirez that many presume will do the heavy offensive lifting in Fielder's place. Ramirez batted .306 with 26 homers and 93 RBI for the Chicago Cubs last season and was signed to a three-year contract with Milwaukee in the offseason. Ramirez went 1 for 11 (.091 batting average) in an opening weekend series against St. Louis.
Gamel actually grew up as a third baseman, but when he was optioned to Triple A last spring training, Brewers management told him switching to first base might be more beneficial for the team in the long run. It also provided Gamel with the best opportunity to crack the big league lineup if Fielder decided to leave.
"It was an adjustment," Gamel said, "but it wasn't like going from the outfield to the infield. There's more responsibility, but I'm a lot more relaxed at first than I ever was at third."
Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said the transition from playing third base to first base isn't as difficult as some might think.
"It's like taking an outfielder that's pretty good in center and moving him to right," Roenicke said. "The first few weeks, yes, it's difficult. Once you've been there a year, if you're a good athlete, you're going to take to it well. Mat's looked really good at first. He looked good in spring training. Personally, I think he's going to like that better than third."
Through three regular-season games, Gamel is hitting .200 (2 for 10). The hits haven't come since Opening Day, but Gamel at least recognizes he has time to rectify that snag with more at-bats as a starter.
"It's a good feeling," Gamel said. "It's different than coming to the park and being surprised that your name is in the lineup. You come to the park mentally prepared to play."
Ramirez returns to Chicago: Brewers third baseman Aramis Ramirez, who spent the past nine seasons with the Cubs, will return to Wrigley Field on Monday. Milwaukee takes on Chicago in a four-game series.
Ramirez signed a three-year, $36 million contract with the Brewers this offseason after new Cubs president Theo Epstein opted to try rebuilding the franchise.
Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said he wasn't sure how Ramirez would respond in his return to the Friendly Confines.
"A lot of times that player that leaves and comes back does great," Roenicke said. "And then there's the player that comes back and tries so hard to do well that he gets out of his game. It's hard to say which way Aramis will go."
Roenicke, Sveum to reunite: Dale Sveum spent six years of his career as a Milwaukee Brewers player and six more as a coach. On Monday, he'll be in the opposite dugout as manager of the Cubs.
Roenicke worked with Sveum last season, when Sveum served as Milwaukee's hitting coach, and said he looked forward to facing his friend.
"I enjoy when I look over to the other side of the field and I see people that I've been with and know," Roenicke said. "It's a great opportunity for him. I know what he's going through. We've talked a little bit. I like that. I like the challenge of matching up with people that I know. It's kind of fun to do."
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