RMLN – Ramirez, Davis making headlines

ROUND ROCK, Texas – An eventful first half for the Round Rock Express has included Chris Davis hitting home runs at a legendary pace and Neil Ramirez's breakout among the system's top pitching prospects. Lone Star Dugout has news and notes from the club, along with a few feature interviews.

  • When Neil Ramirez initially reached Triple-A, it was supposed to be a one-day stint––literally. Coming up from High-A Myrtle Beach, Ramirez was scheduled to make a spot-start for the ill Eric Hurley. He had a plane ticket for a morning flight out of Austin to re-join the Pelicans the next day.

    Then the 6-foot-3 righty went out and hurled six scoreless innings against a talented Omaha lineup, showing above-average stuff and beyond-his-years mound presence.

    So the Rangers let him stick around for one more start.

    "After the game, Bobby (Jones) just took me into the office and said they were going to keep me around for a little bit and see what happens from there," Ramirez said. "It was just one of those things where they kept me around for another start, I had a little bit of success, and they kept me up here. I'm grateful for that."

    In Ramirez's second start, he yielded only two hits while fanning nine in five innings. He held a 2.03 earned-run average through his first five Triple-A starts.

    Ramirez kept getting another Triple-A start, and he kept taking advantage of the opportunity.

    "Those first couple weeks, nothing was certain," he said. "There wasn't really a set plan or anything. But I was just pitching and not worrying about it. That's what I tried to do."

    Finally, Ramirez got the hint and realized it was no longer a short stint––he'd forced his way into becoming a full-time Triple-A pitcher with his excellent performance and stuff. But the Rangers didn't come out and say it.

    "They didn't even say it," said the prospect. "It was one of those things that kind of happened. After about a month, I'd say that I had done pretty good so I thought maybe I would stick around."

    The Virginia Beach native has been the Express' most consistent starting pitcher this season, though he has scuffled a bit more lately. While he still isn't getting hit much and the strikeout numbers remain high, Ramirez has walked a few more batters, the pitch counts are higher, and his command hasn't been quite as sharp.

    According to Ramirez, the inconsistent command stems from a mechanical rut. And it's one that his former pitching coach––Brad Holman––discussed a handful of times with this site.

    "I got out of my delivery a little bit," Ramirez said after a recent start. "There were some side-to-side misses that I'm not happy about. Me and Brad talked about it––up and down is okay. That's just a matter of release point. But side-to-side––that means I'm working around myself instead of over my delivery. I've got to fix that."

    It's an issue that Triple-A Round Rock pitching coach Terry Clark also discusses in the following interview.

    When Ramirez eliminates the rotational aspect of his delivery, he shows good command of a low-to-mid 90s fastball with great angle. But when he doesn't get on top of the ball, his stuff comes out on more of a flat plane.

    "That was a big focus," said Ramirez of getting better angle on his pitches last season. "Those first couple years, I really worked side-to-side, meaning I would fall off to the third base side. And I'd have to come around my body to get back into the strike zone.

    "Direction was huge––figuring that out. These last couple starts, I've gotten out of that a little bit. I need to stay focused on that and get into a ready position, as Brad calls it."

    The former first-round pick had some similar troubles in his last home start, in which he yielded four runs (three earned) on six hits over five innings, walking three and striking out six.

    One scout in attendance commented that, when the mechanics were right, his stuff looked fantastic. And when they weren't, he was missing away from right-handers and lost sharpness with the curveball.

    Ramirez threw his fastball mostly at 91-94 mph, touching up to 95 a couple of times. He reached 98 mph out of the bullpen in spring training and has been up to 96 on occasion with starts in Round Rock. The velocity is certainly above-average, and he throws it on a difficult-to-hit downward plane when he's right mechanically.

    Perhaps the biggest development for Ramirez this season has been the changeup as a third reliable offering. Though it has come a long way, he says the pitch is still a little too inconsistent.

    "Right now, it's kind of hit or miss," he said. "On certain days it's really good, and sometimes it's not as good. I just kind of get away from it when the curveball is really good. I'm just trying to be consistent and mix it in every start."

    Clark touches on Ramirez's changeup in the below interview. In that June 17 start against Omaha, the right-hander's 82-85 mph change was arguably his most effective pitch. Ramirez throws the pitch with excellent arm action––a big difference from the '09 season, when he struggled to even find a rudimentary feel for the change––and he gets good deception while showing the confidence to use it against both left- and right-handed hitters.

    The overall outlook for Ramirez isn't much different than it was when he arrived in Triple-A. He currently projects as a number three starter with a number two ceiling, showing three future solid-average to plus pitches. But he's not there quite yet, and it's likely that Ramirez won't see the majors until some point next season.

    The prospect turned 22 a month ago. As Clark explains, Ramirez is right about where he should be for a youngster. Despite the inconsistency of late, he still isn't getting hit (59 hits in 66.2 innings) and keeps missing plenty of bats (74 strikeouts). Ramirez currently ranks sixth in the Pacific Coast League in strikeouts and eighth with a 3.92 ERA.

  • Lone Star Dugout caught up with Terry Clark, the Round Rock pitching coach, after Ramirez's June 17 start against Omaha.

    Jason Cole: What were your thoughts on Neil Ramirez's start tonight?

    Terry Clark: I thought he threw the ball well. He got hurt on 0-2 and 1-2 counts. If he bounces a curveball or throws a fastball down and away or down and in, the results are completely different. He had struck out Lorenzo Cain twice on curveballs in the dirt and hung a curveball to him with an 0-2 count and gave up a two-run homer.

    But he threw the ball better than he has in the last couple starts. It's just situations where he's allowed to throw a ball in the dirt or miss off the plate––he threw it right down the middle and got hurt every time.

    Cole: Because Neil is a younger guy and all this happened so fast for him, are you approaching him a little differently than you would most pitchers here?

    Clark: Yeah, I'm kind of taking it slow with him. I'm not really trying to throw a whole lot of stuff at him. I'm trying to give him one thing here and one thing there. And then hopefully it builds each time.

    It's going to take some time. He's only 22 years old. He has done well enough to stay here. I think the results could be a lot better if he made the pitches when he needs to make them.

    But that's part of being young. It's part of learning. It's part of understanding what I can do, what I can't do, where I can go in the strike zone, and where I can't go in the strike zone. It's just part of him hopefully taking each outing and trying to build off it. When he makes a mistake, he just has to try and not make it again.

    Cole: What are some of the main things you've been focusing on with him lately?

    Clark: Basically just his balance––he gets off-line every once in awhile, and he'll carry the ball off to his glove side––the outside corner to a righty and throw it off the plate. And staying on top of his changeup––his changeup was actually good tonight. His curveball––just getting out front with it and finishing the pitch and trusting it.

    Basically, for him, it's trusting his pitches and knowing that he doesn't have to strike everybody out. He can allow them to hit the ball if he makes a good pitch, and they're going to be outs most of the time.

    Cole: Obviously you haven't worked with him as much in past years, but can you talk about his changeup and how it has developed? It seems like he has developed a good third pitch.

    Clark: Yeah, when he got here, it was pretty good. He would throw it for a strike probably three out of 10 times. He has gotten to the point now where he throws it five out of 10, and some games it's eight out of 10. He has got a good feel for it. If he misses with it, he'll throw it again and throw it for a strike a lot of times. It's a pitch where he has very good arm action. Now it's just a matter of mastering it.

    And I say mastering it at an age of 22––it's tough to do. Guys that have really good changeups in the big leagues––they're 29 or 30 years old. Those guys that have a really good feel for it. So if you look at it that way, he's ahead of schedule. But the other pitch selection and knowing what to do with the pitches––he's about where he should be. He's only 22 years old and in Triple-A.

    Cole: Like you mentioned, he had a good changeup tonight, and he seemed to use the pitch quite a bit tonight. Do you feel he is starting to gain some confidence in it?

    Clark: With his changeup, definitely. He threw it to some pretty good hitters in this league––Robinson is a very good hitter, Ka'aihue is a very good hitter, and even Lough. And every time he threw it, they took bad swings at it or they took it for a strike. So that tells me that he's showing pretty good arm action with it.

    Davis crushed Triple-A pitching last year––but not this well.
  • It's no secret that Chris Davis has little left to prove against Triple-A competition. In 31 games at Round Rock this season, he is hitting .374 with seven doubles, a triple, 17 home runs, and 48 RBI.

    The Pacific Coast League is certainly a hitter-friendly circuit. Thirty-four qualifying players (2.7 PA per team game) are slugging better than .500. Even Willy Taveras, who entered the season with 22 total homers during his 11-year professional career, is slugging at a .479 clip.

    The top two qualifying sluggers in the circuit this year are Reno's Wily Mo Pena (.726) and Tucson's Anthony Rizzo (.715). Although Davis doesn't qualify––he has been in the majors for about half the season thus far––his .862 slugging percentage with Round Rock blows away all competition, and it's not close.

    In fact, Davis is currently averaging a home run in 12.5 percent of his trips to the plate. If he spent the entire season in Triple-A and averaged four plate appearances per game, he'd be on a pace to hit exactly 70 home runs.

    Davis has even been pretty good in 21 major league games this season. During that time, he has provided good defense at both corner infield spots while going 14-for-52 (.269) with two doubles and three homers––a .269/.333/.481 slash line in the small sample.

    But barring injury, Davis simply doesn't have much of a spot on the Rangers' current roster. Mitch Moreland and Adrian Beltre have the corner positions locked down. Michael Young has the reserve spot Davis would potentially take, seeing action at DH, first base, and third base.

    After entering the system in 2006 with a plus arm but no real position, Davis turned himself into an excellent defensive first baseman. Then, with some work, he became at least an average––if not slightly above-average––defender at third. And now he is seeing action in left field.

    Since Davis has returned from his latest big league stint, he has played nine of his 13 games in left field. It's a fairly new position for Davis, although he did play 35 contests in the outfield with short-season Spokane all the way back in '06. He also had a quick four-game stint there in Triple-A last season.

    "When I went back up this year for the last three days, Wash asked me when I come back down to work on playing the outfield," Davis said. "Obviously, if I had it my way, I wouldn't be playing in the outfield. But whatever I can do to help the team right now. I'm not really in a position to where I can kind of call my own shots. I've got to do what they ask me to do to get back there."

    While Davis had opportunities to cement himself as the club's regular first baseman at times over the last few years, he was never quite able to lock down the job. And because of Justin Smoak and Mitch Moreland in the last two seasons, he hasn't seen much time at first in the majors––despite his good glove there.

    "I feel like I can play any position on the field," he said. "I think it's kind of funny––I've been told in the past that I'm a Gold Glove-caliber first baseman, and I haven't really played much first base in the last couple years."

    Davis has hit well enough in the majors this year. But Moreland, Young, and Mike Napoli––when healthy––give the Rangers three options at first base. So Davis is now working on adding to that versatility.

    "I'm going to get out there early, work on some things, and see if I can handle left field," he said. "But I feel pretty comfortable out there right now."

    If Davis can become a passable defender in left field, he can obviously create more playing time for himself in Arlington. But perhaps the added versatility could also make him a more attractive trade chip.

    "It's never easy," he said of picking up a new position. "But obviously the more you're out there, the more comfortable you're going to get. I think it's going to be tougher (in Round Rock) than it was on the road with the way the wind plays in this stadium.

    "We'll see what happens. But, like I said, I feel like I'm a good enough athlete to where I feel like I can keep the ball in front of me and hopefully not make too many mistakes. And maybe it's something that I become accustomed to and maybe I'll become a threat out there."

    The 25-year-old has plus arm strength that is well-suited for a corner spot. His athleticism––which has improved after dropping some weight last offseason––helped make him a passable defender at the hot corner. Davis likely has the tools to play left field, but now he must focus on learning the nuances of the position.

    "I think the biggest thing for me is just reading the ball off the bat," Davis said. "If you can get a good jump on the ball, a lot of times you're going to make a good play. But it comes off the bat a little differently. Sometimes it's hard to tell if it's slicing or if they hooked it. Once I get those reads down, hopefully it'll go a lot smoother."

  • Butler has saved his best performance for Triple-A.
  • Although former 15th-round pick Joey Butler has never been considered among the Rangers' top prospects, he has been a solid contributor all the way through the minor league ranks and worked his way up to Triple-A. Now, in 52 games with Round Rock, the 25-year-old is putting himself on the radar for an eventual cup of coffee.

    Butler is batting a career-best .332/.373/.505 through his first 204 PCL plate appearances. His 28.4 percent strikeout rate is problematic, as his bat speed certainly isn't elite, but the prospect has some major league-caliber tools that include a strong frame and a good arm.

  • Endy Chavez's incredibly hot start with the Rangers between mid-May and early-June forced the club into a tough decision when opening day centerfielder Julio Borbon came off the disabled list. Of the six Rangers capable of playing in the outfield, four are left-handed hitters––forcing a move between Chavez and Borbon, who are both lefties.

    The Rangers optioned Borbon to Triple-A and stuck with Chavez for the time being. While the 33-year-old veteran has slumped over the last three weeks––he doesn't have a multi-hit game since June 3––Borbon hasn't exactly pressed the issue with his performance at Round Rock. Through 21 Triple-A games, he has posted a rather punchless .233/.302/.349 slash line and has appeared overly aggressive at times.

  • Pedro Strop's numbers have been a bit up-and-down since he returned to Triple-A in May. However, his velocity has even ticked up a bit at times. In a May 26 outing against Reno, he threw 19 fastballs––16 of them were between 97 and 98 mph. He threw plenty of strikes but also coughed up three runs on five singles in that inning, proving the importance of within-the-zone location––even with plus-plus velocity.

    The right-hander has produced better results lately. Since that game, he has the following line––15 ip, 15 h, 3 r, 7 bb, 18 k. Strop is working to control his adrenaline and delivery with the Express. Because he rarely throws his sharp splitter for strikes, he is often limited to just a fastball-slider combination unless he's in a position to put a hitter away––making it all the more crucial that he gets ahead of batters. It's all-in-all an interesting situation that will be featured in an interview with Strop within the next week.

  • Like Strop, 24-year-old reliever Mark Hamburger got out to a rough start in Triple-A but has pitched better lately––10.2 ip, 4 h, 1 r, 5 bb, 8 k. Over the last two seasons, Hamburger cruised through the High-A and Double-A levels due to his ability to locate a fastball with above-average (91-96 mph) velocity. His secondary stuff, and the low-80s slider in particular, was the biggest question mark.

    Since joining the Express, Hamburger has maintained the same fastball velocity (more 92-94 mph on some nights and sitting up to 94-96 on others), but he is now throwing his slider anywhere between 85-90 mph. It's more of a cut-slider at 88-90 mph, though it seems to play off his fastball and is much-improved over the softer slider.

    "I've been working on (the slider) with my coach," Hamburger said of his work with Express pitching coach Terry Clark. "We were just kind of getting a little more downward angle instead of a side-to-side angle. I was just trying to get on top of it and follow through all the way."

    In one of his Triple-A outings, Hamburger tossed a clean nine-pitch inning, throwing five sliders at 89-90 mph and getting three swinging strikes, a foul ball, and a flyout to left. He was happy with the pitch in that particular outing.

    "Just like I told my coach, I was just chucking it in there," he said. "I was giving it as much as I could and letting it do what it's supposed to do. And it was definitely working."

    The former Twins farmhand says he began developing confidence in the slider during spring training.

    "When I got my first big league save in the spring, it was almost all sliders I was throwing because my fastball wasn't working too well," he said. "That gave me a lot of confidence with it. I think, ever since then, I've been building off that."

    Hamburger, who is also working to develop a hard splitter, could profile as a future middle reliever in the majors. Consistency has been an issue for him early on in Triple-A, but his secondary stuff has definitely taken a step forward lately.

  • The club recently took a flier on 29-year-old reliever Manny Delcarmen, signing him to a minor league deal after he opted out of his contract with Seattle. A Boston native, Delcarmen pitched out of the bullpen for his hometown Red Sox between 2005 and 2010. His performance declined in the last two years, though, and he hasn't reached the majors this season.

    In a June 17 appearance against Omaha, Delcarmen worked a scoreless inning on 16 pitches, giving up two singles and striking out one. He threw his fastball at 91-93 mph to go along with a low-80s changeup and a curveball. While the change was decent––showing good fading action––he had some issues locating all three pitches in the short sample.

  • Between Strop, Hamburger, Delcarmen, Seth McClung and Ryan Tucker, the Express have a handful of relievers that can flash above-average velocity, as all touch at least 94 mph with some regularity. But as is generally the case for Triple-A hurlers, the issue is being able to consistently command the fastball and secondary stuff. And that's something that all five have struggled with at times, though some more than others.

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