Ramirez shows dedication over offseason

SURPRISE, Ariz. - After an up-and-down 2009 campaign that began with an injury and ended with a 4.75 ERA at Single-A Hickory, right-hander Neil Ramirez is working hard and looking forward to better things in 2010. Lone Star Dugout caught up with the prospect on Wednesday for a Q&A session.

The top portion of this story originally appeared on March 1, in our Scouting the Rangers Prospects feature with Neil Ramirez. The interview was conducted after a Spring Training workout on March 10.

Right-hander Neil Ramirez was part of a big Rangers draft in 2007 that included five first-round picks. The Rangers picked the Virginia Beach high school product 44th overall and gave him a $1 million signing bonus.

Ramirez was regarded as one of the top high school prospects in the nation. Before he even graduated high school, in the summer of 2006, the hurler pitched in the Cal Ripken, Sr. Collegiate Baseball League. Playing with current Rangers prospect Vin DiFazio, Ramirez allowed just three earned runs in eight innings against the older competition.

Since signing, Ramirez has shown flashes of the raw talent that made him a first-round pick, but he has also been slowed by injuries.

After signing right around the mid-August deadline in '07, Ramirez reported to Arizona, but he didn't get his first official professional action until the following summer, when he pitched with short-season Spokane.

With the Indians, Ramirez was dominant. The 6-foot-3, 185-pound hurler was seemingly impossible to hit, yielding just 25 hits in 44 innings. But Ramirez's control was also erratic, as he walked 29. He finished the year with a 2.66 earned-run average and 10.6 strikeouts per nine innings.

The Rangers looked to add to his innings total [just 44 with Spokane] at 2008 Fall Instructional League, but a broken bone in his hand kept him sidelined.

When Ramirez reported to Spring Training in 2009, he quickly suffered an ankle injury followed by a broken bone in his elbow, causing him to miss not only all of camp, but also the entire months of April and May.

The 20-year-old eventually reported to Single-A Hickory in early June, where he had an up and down season. The final numbers produced mixed results–a 4.75 ERA and 41 walks in 66.1 innings, but he also yielded just 58 hits while striking out 56.

Ramirez battled a mix of command and mechanical issues all season, but he began to straighten it out later in the year.

Through his first two months, Ramirez had more walks [26] than strikeouts [23].

In his final seven starts, though, Ramirez logged 26 innings, walking 15 and striking out 32.

Ramirez spent much of the 2009 season attempting to refine his mechanics and command, and he made some strides as the year progressed.

Though the results weren't fantastic, it's all about development for right now, and the jury is still out on Ramirez's future. He has run into a few road blocks, but it's far too early to give up on his excellent arm and power arsenal.

Jason Cole: Last season was the most innings you had thrown in a professional season, and then you went on to Fall Instructional League. How often were you throwing in games there, and how did you feel about your performance?

Neil Ramirez: I think it went well. I threw, I want to say, about 10 innings. There were six or seven of us, and we were just switching off about two innings each time. I didn't get a whole lot of innings, but I got some valuable time working with the pitching coaches. I really got my focus where it needs to be. That's all I was focusing on at instructs–mentally being ready every time I throw the baseball. That was big for me.

Cole: That seems like kind of the main theme about instructs–the mental side of things and working in the classroom just as much as on the field, correct?

Ramirez: I think the focus is–we have a lot of good arms and guys that can throw hard, but they want us to become complete pitchers. That involves every aspect of the game from PFP to locating pitches to situational things–knowing what runners are going to do and stuff like that. It's a big thing.

Cole: From watching instructs, it seems that very few pitchers actually have their normal velocity for various reasons–tired after a long season, firing it up again after months off. Do you think pitching against elite competition without your best stuff at instructs forces guys to become more of a complete pitcher?

Ramirez: Yeah. The arms are tired at the end of the year, so guys have to learn to pitch with everything. They have got to change speeds, use their breaking ball, and be able to throw it for strikes. That's big. These guys won't swing at it if you don't throw it in the strike zone. The velocity, a lot of times, isn't 100 percent at the end of the year. You definitely have to locate the fastball.

Cole: When I saw you in Hickory last year, it seemed one of your biggest focuses was throwing your changeup in games and developing that pitch. From beginning to end, how far did you change progress last season?

Ramirez: I think it went alright. It was a big learning year for me, last year. Like you said, I was trying to use my changeup a lot more in games. I was getting away from just fastball-curveball. I got more comfortable with the changeup as it went on. I'm still getting more confidence in it right now. A big thing for me is just being able to locate every pitch. It's not just changeup I'm working on–it's everything and being able to locate everything in the strike zone.

Cole: While you've been working on the changeup over the last year or so, have you messed around with the grips at all or have you simply been throwing it more often?

Ramirez: I messed around–I've used a couple different grips on it, and I've found one that I think I'm comfortable with right now after working with one of the pitching coaches. With that, also with the changeup, is keeping a consistent arm slot. I had a tendency to rush sometimes, and my arm slot dropped a little bit. That was another major thing as far as the grip, but I've found one that I am comfortable with now, and I think I'm comfortable with the arm slot as well.

Cole: How difficult is that to not only notice that you're changing your arm slot on certain pitches, but also to fix?

Ramirez: It's not hard, but it is all making sure that you tell yourself to do it every time. It's one of those things where you have just got to be focused. I think that's what came along for me as well–just focusing on that and really being aware of what I'm doing at every step of my mechanics.

Cole: You look like you've added some muscle since last season. Talk to me about what you did over the offseason to prepare for the 2010 campaign.

Ramirez: Workouts this offseason were pretty intense. I was out here with Napoleon Pichardo, the strength coordinator for the minor leagues. We really got after it. Legs were a huge emphasis. We did this workout called Crossfit. It's maximum intensity and as fast as you can do it. That really got to us–some guys were throwing up after doing it.

Working out was huge for me, nutrition was huge for me, and everything that goes into being a professional baseball player. I really put that into focus this offseason and made the mindset that I'm going to get after it this Spring Training.

Cole: When did you get out here to Surprise?

Ramirez: I came out in November. After that advanced league, I went home for about a month and got to see my family a little bit. But then I came back out and I was here all offseason. I went home for the holidays but came back out.

I was living with Derek Holland, which was another big thing for me, with him being in the Major Leagues. He's another guy that came up through the system. It was good to be around him and guys like that that are in the Major Leagues.

Cole: When you were out here in November and pretty much the entire offseason, were there any other pitchers here besides you and Holland?

Ramirez: Me, Derek–Tanner Scheppers was out here. He is obviously a top prospect for us. It was good to be around him too. Daniel Gutierrez was out here with us, and Kyle Ocampo came out early. There were a lot of guys.

It was more of a tight-knit group, and we're all kind of close now because we went through that same training regimen. We know what it was like. Doing this stuff just got us where we need to be for this Spring Training.

Cole: You've gotten an opportunity to throw a couple bullpens since camp officially started. How do you feel it's going so far, and what is your primary focus right now?

Ramirez: I'm pleased with what I've been doing so far. I've still got a lot to work on, but as far as finding mechanics that will keep me healthy and really using my lower half and my core, I feel it has come a lot way from where it was when I started off here. For me, it's good so far.

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