Ramirez refining mechanics, adding cutter

SURPRISE, Ariz. – Right-hander Neil Ramirez is coming off a breakout 2011 campaign in which he pitched well and missed bats at Triple-A. But the 22-year-old, who pitched in Monday's intrasquad game, is looking to keep his shoulder healthy and his pitch counts down this year. Lone Star Dugout caught up with him after the game.

Right-hander Neil Ramirez enters the 2012 campaign looking to build upon a breakout 2011 season. After opening last year with one start at High-A Myrtle Beach, he earned what was initially planned as a single spot-start with Triple-A Round Rock.

But after a strong performance, Ramirez forced his way into a full-time gig with the Express. He ended up making 18 starts in Triple-A, posting a 3.63 earned-run average. in 74.1 innings, he allowed only 63 hits, walked 35 and struck out 86.

The 6-foot-4 hurler was excellent in the season's first half, flashing three plus pitches in a 91-96 mph fastball, a sharp-breaking curveball, and a deceptive mid-80s changeup. His stuff and command wasn't quite as sharp in the second half, as he battled shoulder tightness and inflammation down the stretch.

The Rangers sent Ramirez down to Double-A Frisco for a period––getting his first-ever Texas League action––and he responded with a 1.89 ERA in six starts. During that stint, he yielded four runs on 13 hits in 19 innings, walking eight and fanning 24.

Ramirez finished the year by making two starts in the Arizona Fall League before once again being shut down with the minor, but nagging, shoulder troubles. He allowed one run in seven Fall League frames.

As the 22-year-old mentions in the following interview, he is putting more of a focus on incorporating his lower body into his delivery this spring in hopes of avoiding future shoulder problems. Though he flashed plus stuff and had a breakout 2011 season, he'd surely like to log more than 98 innings in a year.

Command is another aspect Ramirez is looking to improve in 2011. He too often worked deep into counts at Triple-A, leading to high pitch counts and limiting him to five or six innings on most nights. The hurler says he's currently introducing an upper-80s cutter into his arsenal to help him put batters away more quickly.

Ramirez has begun his spring by appearing in two intrasquad games on the back fields. During Monday's two-inning outing, he was up in the zone with all three pitches––which he addresses in the following interview. His fastball sat mostly between 89-91 mph but reached 93-94 late in his second frame. He mixed in a few upper-80s cutters in the first inning. Ramirez also showed an 83-84 mph changeup and a 75-77 mph curveball.

The Virginia Beach native can miss bats with all three of his pitches, and his cutter could be an effective addition to his repertoire that helps to induce ground balls early in the count. A healthy Ramirez has the stuff to help the Rangers in 2012––either out of the bullpen or as a starting pitcher––but he'll need to continue refining his command.

Lone Star Dugout caught up with the prospect, who was placed on the 40-man roster this past offseason, after his second intrasquad appearance of the spring.

Jason Cole: You obviously worked really hard last offseason and came out of the gates strong, but the shoulder issue seemed to slow you down during the second half. Tell me about your workout this offseason. Did you change anything?

Neil Ramirez: I always try to go about it the same way. It's just the way I am––to work hard. But this year, having the shoulder issue last year, there was definitely a lot more focus on recovery work.

I was still working out hard, but I was definitely making sure to have some recovery before and after workouts. Nutrition and all that kind of stuff to just kind of alleviate that inflammation that had built up back there. That was a little bit of the difference, really. I was just making sure I was doing the recovery work.

Cole: You pitched a little bit in the Arizona Fall League after the season. Just a few starts, right?

Ramirez: Yeah, two starts. I was supposed to go about three or four, but the shoulder thing just kind of never went away. I'm not really sure what it was––if it was just tightness or just inflammation. But those two starts went well. I wish I would have been out there for more. But yeah, after that I shut it down for about a month with no throwing.

Cole: How does the shoulder feel now?

Ramirez: It feels good now. It feels good. The key is just to make sure that I can keep it up during the season. Obviously this offseason there was definitely a lot of shoulder strengthening and shoulder stability exercises. I kind of never got away from those in the first place. I don't know if last year was just trying to do too much and getting away from my mechanics a little bit caused it. But the key is just to keep that going throughout the season.

Cole: I know you were here in November of last offseason. When did you get out to Surprise this year?

Ramirez: I was out here early in November, went home, and then came out against in February. I split time between here and a place in Nashville. I was working with some trainers there.

Cole: What kind of stuff were you doing in Nashville?

Ramirez: Just a lot of legs––heavy legs. I was doing some shoulder stability and upper-body strengthening as well. I think I got away from that a little bit when the shoulder started hurting me. I'm making sure the upper body is strong. Just kind of total body and getting it strong.

Cole: You've pitched in two intrasquad games here on the back fields so far. Tell me about your first two outings. How do you feel about them?

Ramirez: I'm not too happy with the way they've gone. I still have a lot to work on. I'm kind of ironing some things out mechanically. It's tough to go out there and pitch and think about mechanics at the same time.

So I just need to keep the mechanics in the bullpen and in the game, go out there and compete. But I'm happy with the way my arm feels and stuff like that, so I guess that's the most important thing right now. And just really tightening up my command––I've gotta get the ball down.

Cole: I noticed the mechanics look slightly different from last year. Have you changed anything?

Ramirez: Not a whole lot of changes. I'm really just trying to get my legs more involved in my pitching. I think that a lot of times when guys have shoulder problems, you see a lot of arm deliveries and not whole body-type things. I'm just trying to incorporate the whole body, have good timing, be athletic, and obviously be able to repeat my mechanics.

Cole: How do you feel about your mechanics so far? What are you doing well? What do you think you could improve upon?

Ramirez: I think I'm a little late getting the arm up right now. A lot of focus has been on lower body, so I think I really need to make sure I'm getting the arm going as well. If I'm not, that thing's going to be up in the zone. Your body is going to be going and your arm is going to be lagging behind. I think that's the big thing right now––getting everything in synch right now.

Cole: In your first of two innings today, you had a couple fastballs in the upper-80s that had some cutting action. Are you working on a cutter?

Ramirez: Yeah, that was intended. The cutter is kind of a pitch that I'm messing with on the side a little bit to have another pitch in the arsenal. That's a little bit on the back-burner until I get all three pitches that I know I can get working. But that's kind of a work in progress. Just something that I can have in the bag.

Cole: Did you begin introducing that during the offseason?

Ramirez: I started in the Fall League. With the shoulder going south the way it was, I kind of just cut it down. Now I'm picking it back up again while playing catch and in the sides.

Cole: Is that something that you expect, once the regular season starts, to work on again?

Ramirez: I think so. I think it'll be a good pitch to run in on lefties and work away to righties––get some ground balls in on lefties' hands and stuff like that. The big thing is that I've just got to get some more early outs. Last year, I ran into some big counts. I'm really trying to attack guys early. That's my main goal this year––to get guys out within three pitches.

Cole: How is your feel for the curveball and changeup coming along early in camp?

Ramirez: With the changeup, I feel pretty good. The curveball is kind of lagging behind right now. Like I said, I'm late getting the arm up, and I think it's just kind of dragging out of my hand. That's going to be a pitch that I think comes along last. I think it usually is––it's more of a feel pitch. But once you get the feel for it, you can start throwing it easily. That's a little bit behind, but I'm working on it.

Cole: You got placed on the 40-man roster this season after a breakout year in 2011. Talk about your thoughts on that and the reward for a strong season.

Ramirez: It's exciting. Any time you get added to the 40-man roster, it means they obviously like you. I'm not trying to change anything. The 40-man is good. That's done now. And now the goal is to be on the 25-man. I'm just putting that aside and going out and pitching.

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