4. Can Horacio Ramirez get better in 2006?

BravesCenter's Bill Shanks continues to look at the top 35 questions facing the Braves this winter. Can Horacio Ramirez take his game to the next level and be a top-notch starting pitcher? Find out in our premium coverage.

The Braves were not really sure what they would get from Horacio Ramirez in 2005. He had missed most of the 2004 season with shoulder trouble, which resulted in surgery last winter. And with any pitcher coming off surgery, there's a worry.

Ramirez bounced back to give the Braves 202.1 innings pitched as a number four starter. He was 11-9 on the 2005 season, but his ERA was 4.63.

The soon-to-be 26-year-old lefty has yet to turn the corner to become a top starter. He showed signs of doing so in 2004 before his injury. He was exceptional in the nine games before he got hurt, with a low hit to innings pitched ratio and quality starts just about every time out. But the injury seriously harmed his season.

With any pitcher, consistency is the element needed to reach the next level. That's what separates great pitchers from good pitchers, and good pitchers from mediocre pitchers. Ramirez has just got to become more consistent to become a great pitcher.

Does he have the ability to become a great pitcher? Absolutely. Ramirez is a smart pitcher, with a great idea of how to get people out. But he does have a few things that he can work on to reach that next level.

Obviously, Ramirez gave up too many home runs in 2005. He allowed thirty-one dingers in his thirty-three games pitched. Compare that to the twenty-one he allowed in 2003 in twenty-nine starts, and the seven he allowed in his ten games in 2004. Sometimes home runs don't hurt pitchers, but the ones Ramirez gave up this season did. There were a number of games where he was cruising along, pitching well, only until he gave up the big home run. He might have won fifteen games if not for giving up the long ball so often.

So that's the first thing Ramirez must do to get better, and no one knows that more than he does. Horacio also knows that consistency is important for him to reach that next level. The lack of consistency frustrated him for much of the season. He seemed to be much better off when he would keep things simple, repeating that over and over when he would have good outings. The simpler he kept things when he was on the mound, the better he would do.

Horacio's critics will also tell you that he needs to strike more people out. His K/9ip ratio has dipped every year since his rookie campaign, going from 4.94 in his rookie season, to 4.62 in 2004, and then to 3.56 this past season. They'll tell you that this is a sign that he's just a mediocre pitcher. But Horacio comes from a school of thought that it's better to try to let your fielders help you get people out, instead of going for the strikeouts. This will also keep his pitch count down, which was a respectable 93 pitches per start.

The other criticism Ramirez hears is that he's not aggressive enough, and that he sometimes nitpicks with the strike zone instead of going straight after his hitters. He'll definitely want to improve on that, and I believe he will. He's got an aggressive nature, so you wonder if the more passive approach came after his surgery. Sometimes pitchers changes after having surgery. Perhaps he believed he needed to do that to stay effective. But there's definitely a need for him to go after hitters a little bit more.

With the loss of Mike Hampton for 2006, Ramirez is the only returning left-hander for the rotation, which makes him pretty safe from being traded. The Braves love Chuck James, and who knows, James may eventually pass Ramirez on the depth chart. But right now Ramirez is still valuable to this team. He needs to become more consistent and become that decent number two or three starter the Braves envisioned him becoming when he was a rookie a few years ago.

Ramirez still has tons of talent. There are things he needs to improve on, but it's funny how many people lose sight of the fact that pitchers can still develop and get better after they get to the big leagues. You might want to break Ramirez down statistically and claim that he took a step backwards in 2005, but he certainly showed with numerous outstanding performances that he does have the ability to become a solid number three starting pitcher. And with the Braves needing a lefty to step up in 2006, Ramirez will get his shot.

Horacio is a very determined young man. He wants to be the lefty the Braves can depend on. It's a shame the Braves didn't win Game Four of the National League Division Series, since Horacio would have started the deciding game. There's no doubt in my mind that he would have risen to the occasion and given his team a chance to win.

Count me as one that still has confidence in Ramirez. I know he needs to become more consistent, but we all must remember that it took John Smoltz and Tom Glavine a few years to reach their peak. I see no reason why Ramirez can't get better and give the Braves a solid middle-of-the-rotation starting pitcher.

Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team. Bill can be reached at thebravesshow@email.com.

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