COMMENTARY | Last year, the month of May didn't get off to the start Milwaukee Brewers' first baseman Mat Gamel had envisioned when he tore his ACL chasing a foul popup at San Diego. Now, the start of spring training has brought more bad news to the one-time promising young prospect whose days in Milwaukee might be running out.
On Feb. 16, the Brewers had their first full-squad workout down in Maryville, and Gamel was unable to complete it, leaving him with soreness in his surgically repaired right knee. Last season, Gamel had plans to play in the Arizona Fall League as well as winter ball to make up for lost at-bats during the 2012 season, but this appears to show that he wasn't physically ready to participate.
While the Brewers said they were simply being cautious with Gamel, it turns out there was more to the story. Milwaukee manager Ron Roenicke announced on Feb. 18 that Gamel would miss the entire 2013 season after re-aggravating his ACL injury. It wasn't exactly encouraging news to see him exit a team workout roughly eight months after he underwent surgery on his ACL. Now Gamel, whose luck would be bad if he had any at all, could very well be done in a Brewer uniform despite being arbitration eligible at the end of the season.
With Corey Hart battling his own knee problems that are expected to keep him out through April, the next man up to play first base would appear to be 24-year-old Hunter Morris. But Morris shouldn't start at first base for the Brewers. In fact, he shouldn't even be on the roster; at least not until 2014.
The highest level of baseball Morris has played is Double-A, which is where he played last year for the Huntsville Stars when he won the organization's minor league player of the year award as well as the Southern League MVP. Morris hit .303 with 28 HRs and 113 RBIs in his third season in the Brewers' farm system.
That performance earned him a non-roster invite to spring training, where all of a sudden, he will see more at-bats than expected because of the injuries to Hart and Gamel. This will turn out to be a valuable experience for the organization's No. 4 prospect via Baseball America, but no matter how well he performs, a trip to Triple-A Nashville prior to opening day should be the end result for Morris.
The first question then becomes this -- if not Morris, then who? Roenicke entertained the idea of giving backup shortstop Alex Gonzalez some reps at first base even before Gamel encountered his knee complications, and now that could become a reality. Utility man Taylor Green, who now appears all but locked into an opening day roster spot with Gamel's injury, can also play some first, but Green has just a .207 average in parts of two seasons with the Brewers.
Milwaukee will also probably mull its options with free agent first basemen. Mike Carp was recently designated for assignment by the Seattle Mariners, and Daric Barton of the Oakland Athletics could also be a possibility since he is on a non-guaranteed contract. Casey Kotchman would have been an obvious choice, but he signed with the Miami Marlins last week as a free agent. It's also unlikely Carlos Lee would want to return to Milwaukee to fill in on a temporary basis.
With that, there doesn't appear to be any legitimate options outside of the organization, which makes the idea of fluctuating Gonzalez between short and first during spring training enticing. But getting back to Morris, why shouldn't he start for the first six weeks of the season with Hart sidelined?
The Brewers have no desire to rush Morris along, even though he is one of Milwaukee's most prized prospects. His improvement has been steady throughout his three-year minor league career, and if he can continue to take a step forward at Nashville this season, that makes him a perfect candidate to be the Brewers' opening day first baseman -- in 2014. By throwing him into the fire for a limited time -- perhaps not even a month if Hart truly is ahead of schedule -- it could delay his progression and throw off his entire season, delaying his true arrival to the big leagues.
But if Corey Hart will inevitably return as Milwaukee's starting first baseman, then doesn't that block Morris down the road? Not if the Brewers decide not to resign Hart, whose contract is up following the 2013 season. Milwaukee will have to decide just how valuable the soon-to-be 31-year-old is to the franchise, and when mulling all of the factors that go into that decision, the Brewers should ultimately choose to part ways with Hart.
Being 31 before opening day, Hart doesn't have many good years ahead of him and may very well be past his prime entering his tenth season with the club. With the way the Brewers have been spending lately, they might not be all that intrigued by a 31-year-old with knee problems. Hart has even said that he questioned his mobility due to his recent knee injury, which might limit him to first base and eliminate the possibility of one day returning to the outfield.
Reemerging complications with the knee after his return also aren't out of the question for Hart. Considering the risk of signing Hart to a long-term deal and Gamel being all but finished in a Brewer uniform, the door is open for Morris to assume the first base role in 2014.
Let the Morris-watch begin.
Dave Radcliffe lives in a little known Milwaukee suburb and is a self-proclaimed Wisconsin sports expert who has contributed to JSOnline and as a featured columnist among other sites and publications.
You can follow Dave on Twitter @DaveRadcliffe_.