The Brewers approached spring training with two gaping holes in their lineup, two enormous potholes that threatened to swallow their chances of capturing back-to-back division titles for the first time in 30 years. To return to the postseason, Milwaukee pinned its hopes on an unlikely duo of little-known saviors: Shyam Das and Mat Gamel.
Das did his part. Pressure's on you now, Mat.
"I don't think of it as pressure," Gamel said. "To me, it's the opportunity I've been waiting for."
Gamel, a 26-year-old infielder who has mostly been stuck in Class AAA since 2008, is the Brewers' new first baseman, which comes as a bit of a shock. He's no Prince Fielder, Gamel is quick to acknowledge. Heck, he's barely a first baseman.
But Gamel, a lifelong third baseman until last year, is the player that Brewers General Manager Doug Melvin entrusted with Fielder's job, if not quite his role. And if he solves that challenge for Milwaukee as effectively as Das did their Ryan Braun problem -- Das is the arbitrator who overturned Braun's 50-game suspension for testing positive for elevated testosterone last October -- the Brewers might yet survive their winter of upheaval.
Fielder signed a $214 million contract with Detroit in January, robbing Milwaukee's lineup of a 40-homer presence whose personality was as large as his belly. Melvin reportedly considered aging sluggers Hideki Matsui or Raul Ibanez, and rumors persist that right fielder Cory Hart could inherit the job. But Melvin ultimately placed his faith in Gamel, whose 28 home runs in the minors last season were a career high, and a sign there might not be as big a drop-off as Brewers fans fear.
"You don't replace a guy like Prince, and I'd never ask him to do that," said Ron Roenicke, who led Milwaukee to a 19-victory improvement and into the NLCS in his first season as Brewers manager. "But if we can keep him relaxed and focused, he can make a big dent in [Fielder's] numbers. He's got the talent to be a part of a winner."
And the Brewers figure they can compensate in other areas, too. Melvin signed former Cub Aramis Ramirez, who has averaged 28 home runs a year since 2005, to upgrade third base, where Casey McGehee had lost the job to Jerry Hairston by the time the playoffs started. Second baseman Rickie Weeks, who hit 20 home runs last year despite missing 44 games because of a badly sprained ankle, is healthy again.
Mostly, the Brewers are counting on a solid pitching staff and a decent lineup to absorb the loss of Fielder. Controversial as it was, Braun's victory in the arbitration room means there won't be an MVP-sized vacuum in the lineup for two months, enabling Roenicke to pencil in something like the 33-home run, 33-stolen base season that the 28-year-old turned in last season.
Meanwhile, Milwaukee allowed the fewest runs by far of any team in its division, and the new left side of the infield -- Ramirez and Alex Gonzalez, replacing McGehee and Yuniesky Betancourt -- figures to cut that number even more. The rotation is deep and intact, and Roenicke believes righthander Shaun Marcum might be on the verge of reaching the elite class of teammates Zack Greinke and Yovani Gallardo. John Axford and Francisco Rodriguez are a killer combination in the bullpen.
"People see [Braun] and Fielder and think we won just by hitting homers," said Hart, who hopes to return from knee surgery before Opening Day. "But we've got one of the best pitching staffs in the game."
And then there's Gamel, a career .301 hitter and .521 slugger in Class AAA, waiting to make the big jump. He changed his approach this winter, hired a personal trainer and reported to camp in better shape than ever before. He's had chances before -- McGehee beat him out at third base two years ago -- but he never has been counted upon like this.
"It's up to me to step up. It's up to me to prove that I deserve the opportunity," Gamel said. "It's not about replacing Prince, it's about helping this team win."
He'll do plenty, his teammates believe.
"If you watch him, you would think he's been in the big leagues for years," Hart said. "This doesn't faze him. He's going to be fine."