Pittsburgh Pirates: Ben Gamel’s Future

PITTSBURGH, PA - AUGUST 01: Ben Gamel #18 of the Pittsburgh Pirates in action during the game against the Philadelphia Phillies at PNC Park on August 1, 2021 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH, PA - AUGUST 01: Ben Gamel #18 of the Pittsburgh Pirates in action during the game against the Philadelphia Phillies at PNC Park on August 1, 2021 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images) /

Ben Gamel has been a great with the Pittsburgh Pirates, but only controlled through next season. So should the team explore the possibility of an extension?

The Pittsburgh Pirates picked up outfielder Ben Gamel on a waiver claim from the Cleveland Indians. Since being picked up, he’s been a quality corner outfield option for the Bucs this year. He is controlled through next year through arbitration. But is a free agent after that. He’s only 29 and could be a solid 4th outfielder for the Pirates when they’re back in it. So should the team consider extending him?

In the 276 plate appearances Gamel has had in a Pirate uniform, he’s putting up a solid .259/.347/.418 line, .332 wOBA, and 108 wRC+. Gamel has been one of the Pirates’ most productive bats this year. Among the team’s players with at least 200 plate appearances, his wRC+ currently sits behind his fellow outfield teammate Bryan Reynolds as well as first baseman Colin Moran. Gamel has drawn walks at a very strong 12% rate. While not a big slugger, his .159 isolated slugging percentage is right around league average.

Gamel has been a line-drive machine, ranking  fourth in LD% among all players with at least 200 PA’s. His LD% as a Pirate is higher than his ground ball rate with a 28.9% LD% and 27.3% GB%. Not only is he hitting the most productive batted ball result just under 30% of the time, and more often than the least productive but most often batted ball result, his average exit velocity of 89.7 MPH is above average. Now his hard-hit rate is a bit low at 35.1%, but the amount of line drives he hits makes up for it.

Defensively, Gamel has been underwhelming. While not the worst glove in the league, he isn’t going to compete for any Gold Gloves. This year, he’s spent 524.1 innings in the grass having -6 DRS and -7 outs above average, but a solid .7 UZR/150 and .5 range runs above average. He’s mainly played left field, but has played a few games in right and center.

Overall, he’s been worth 1.1 fWAR in 81 games and 271 trips to the plate. That puts him on pace for about 2.4 fWAR in roughly a full season’s worth of plate appearances (600). About 2 in a full season is considered your average when looking at WAR. So this year, Gamel has been about an average MLB player.

One of the questions to ask is if he would be worth the extension. Reasonably speaking, he’s worth $5-$10 million a year. He’s an average player who has mainly played left field but has played in right field and center field. He can be a decent hitter when given semi-regular playing time like in 2017-2018. If the Pirates can lock him down for 2 years with an AAV between $5-$10 million, then they should take the opportunity to pick him up.

But another question that needs to be asked is if they can get better value from a player in their farm system. I recently talked about how the Pirates’ outfield could be one of their biggest strengths in 2022 because of the large amount of depth throughout the organization. Bryan Reynolds is a given to start. Gamel will likely start the year as one of the team’s primary outfielders as well.

But just look at all the other options that should be in the majors between now and 2023. Travis Swaggerty, Canaan Smith-Njigba, Cal Mitchell, Lolo Sanchez, Matthew Fraizer, possibly Jack Herman, and Matt Gorski. The likes of Oneil Cruz, Kevin Newman, or Jared Triolo could see some time in the grass in the next few seasons.

There are also a ton of other options who have Major League experience who can play at least one outfield position currently in the organization like Tucupcita Marcano, Michael Chavis, Hoy Park, Anthony Alford, Yoshi Tsutsugo, Wilmer Difo, and Jared Oliva. Maybe they turn someone like Rodolfo Castro or Kevin Newman into a super-utiltiy guy and have them play a few games in the grass. Are there at least a few potential players in that group that will produce Ben Gamel? Absolutely. It would be wiser to let Gamel go and fill his spot with a prospect who can put up similar or better numbers than he can and use the money that would be used in a Gamel extension elsewhere (whether that be an extension or toward a player).

One last question that may arise that I want to bring up is would Gamel be willing to play as a 4th outfielder, and for a reasonable price at that? The 2022 outfield will probably end up looking like a mix of Travis Swaggerty, Bryan Reynolds, and Oneil Cruz if I were to guess now. Swags has shown some solid stuff at Triple-A before his injury, we all know that Reynolds is producing at a very high level, and Cruz looks like he could be a future silver slugger winner.

If Gamel produces as an average player next season, there will definitely be another team who not only may promise him more, but also more playing time. Even if the Pirates match whatever offer that comes Gamel’s way, but can’t promise him regular or semi-regular playing time, he’ll more than likely sign with the team that can give him consistent plate appearances. The Pirates could overpay for his services, but at that point, would it even be worth it, especially considering the number of players that could end up replacing his production?

If you asked me, the Pirates should at least explore an extension with Ben Gamel, but not this off-season. Maybe during next season when the Pirates have a clearer idea of what the outfield picture will look like. A lot can change from now to next June. If any of Swaggerty, Cruz, Fraizer, Marcano, Smith-Njigba, Mitchell, or Sanchez are looking like quality options, there wouldn’t be a massive need to pursue an extension with Gamel.

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I’d also only explore this possibility if he is willing to sign for a reasonable price. The Pirates have more than enough outfield options who will be ready in the next year or two who have a good chance of replacing or out-producing Gamel’s value. There’s no need to push extra hard for a soon-to-be free agent outfielder who isn’t a game-changing product when you can replace him with a similar player, or one with more versatility.