Ben Gamel is but a small, delicate needle in a Safeco Field-sized haystack. After the acquisition of Jarrod Dyson a little over a week ago, Gamel is now one of five starting-caliber center fielders in the Mariners organization, and the one with the least MLB experience.
At only 24 years old, Gamel is also the youngest of the bunch. He’s still considered a prospect of sorts, although he didn’t exactly get a roaring review from John Sickels of Minor League Ball before the 2016 campaign.
Positives: scouts have always liked his swing and give him decent comment for pure hitting skills. He shows some feel for the strike zone. He set a career-best mark in SLG last year and got to his power more frequently. He can play all three outfield positions reasonably well. Major league bloodlines are always nice. Negatives: he doesn’t have a standout tool with merely average speed, arm strength, and raw power, factors which could make him a tweener. There’s understandable concern that the ISO surge last year was a fluke given the out-of-contextness in regards to the rest of his career. He turns 24 in May so he’s not exactly a super-young prospect. All that said, Gamel could end up being a very useful role player. Grade C+.
Gamel would go on to stick it to Sickels and his other doubters with a terrific season in the Yankees’ farm system. He earned International League Player of the Year honors thanks to a .308/.365/.420 line with 19 steals and some highlight-level defense. The accolade surely caught the eye of Dipoto and co. On August 31st the M’s nabbed him for the price of RHPs Jio Orozco and Juan De Paula.
Should he produce at the major league level, you can expect to see him in some capacity for years to come, even if it is just as a role player as Sickels suggested. The big question now is this: where does he fit in the team’s present?
With Dyson, Leonys Martin, and Mitch Haniger all on board, it’s looking like Gamel won’t have a starting job in 2017 — and given his 59 wRC+ in his first 57 big league plate appearances last season, that’s probably for the best. Gamel still has some major adjusting to do as his strikeout rate soared from 18% to 28% once he reached the majors.
But based on Jerry Dipoto’s comments this offseason, it’s pretty clear the team still believes in Gamel and plans to give him ample opportunities to establish himself. This from Bob Dutton in November suggests as much.
"Plan A," general manager Jerry Dipoto confirmed Tuesday, "is to provide Gamel and Vogey with an avenue toward getting at-bats."
The Mariners instead underscored their commitment to Vogelbach and Gamel by making two recent trades designed to provide a safety net in acquiring Danny Valencia from Oakland, and Taylor Motter and Richie Shaffer from Tampa Bay.
"We don’t intend to run a test tube at the major-league level," Dipoto said, "but we do intend to provide opportunity…for those young players to break through. If we have to adjust as the season goes along, we’ll be open to adjusting."
Strangely, Dipoto went on to acquire Haniger and Dyson, two players that pose major threats to Gamel’s playing time. The good news is the presence of those two players should give Gamel some breathing room. He won’t have the weight of the world on his shoulders and the outfield won’t become a massive black hole if he struggles.
So what makes Gamel so intriguing to Dipoto? Well, as a young and controllable player, he’s very moldable for the coaching staff. He’s under team control through at least the 2022 season, which gives the team plenty of time to turn him into whatever they want to — and at a cheap cost to boot. He’s an athletic enough player defensively that he can make crazy plays like these:
Like many other Dipoto guys, he can draw a walk too. In his last two seasons in the minors he walked a little over 8% of the time and there’s good reason to believe that the coaching staff will work to improve upon that (C the Z, baby).
It’s clear that Gamel has lost some ground in the outfield totem pole this offseason. That’s all thanks to Haniger, another rookie who produced an even more impressive .341/.428/.670 (!) mark in Triple-A last year.
However, Gamel appears to have the upper hand in the fourth outfielder battle between him and Guillermo Heredia. The reason for that is Gamel is a much more projectable player going forward given his gap power potential (.116 vs. .091 minor league ISO). While Heredia has more patience at the plate than Gamel, discipline is much more teachable than power.
But as young as Gamel is, it doesn’t make a lot of sense for him to take up a major league roster spot if he’s not playing regularly. Therefore, the most likely scenario is that Gamel starts the season as Haniger insurance. Gamel is a lefty and can spell Haniger against tough righties. Should Haniger thrive, Gamel will go down to Tacoma so he can continue to develop while getting regular at-bats.
One thing is clear: Gamel is going to play in 2017. The team is going to give him chances to prove himself. It’s up to him to show that their faith was well-founded.