Part 4 in a season-long series projecting a hypothetical 25-man roster made up solely of prospects from the Texas Rangers minor league system.
The No. 3 starter isn't necessarily a glamour spot (unless you pitch for the Phillies), but you're in trouble in the playoffs without one you can depend on.
If you're Neil Ramirez, it's a title that as recently as a year ago might have seemed as elusive as a call from Cooperstown. But a month into the 2011 season, it might be selling his upside short.
The 21-year-old from Virginia Beach quietly finished the 2010 season with a tremendous second half for Low Class A Hickory, posting a 3.74 ERA (after a 5.21 first half) with 78 strikeouts and only 17 walks over 74 2/3 innings. While his fellow 2007 first-rounders were either contributing to a Rangers team bound for the World Series (Tommy Hunter and Julio Borbon) or traded for key pieces of that club (Blake Beavan for Cliff Lee and Michael Main for Bengie Molina), Ramirez was completing his first fully healthy season, doing so for the second straight year in the South Atlantic League. Ramirez ended up leading Texas Minor Leaguers with 142 strikeouts, but in a system as deep in pitching as the Rangers were, a pitcher repeating a level in the lower Minors and posting a 4.43 ERA wasn't going to stand out.
Even more off the map was the offseason Ramirez had. As the big league club was finishing its postseason run, the right-hander quietly reported to Surprise, Ariz., where he spent the entire offseason working out with strength and conditioning coordinator Napoleon Pichardo. There were sprints and throwing. Long-distance runs and weights. Uphill mountain hikes wearing a 20-pound vest. Swimming and plyometrics and mind sessions.
Jamey Newberg's hypothetical 25-man roster made up of Rangers' prospects
"The whole purpose is to focus on the human mind and body in the offseason and forget about baseball," said Pichardo, "to put these guys in a very uncomfortable state physically and mentally and watch them work to complete the task at hand. You want to make them feel confident in their ability to do anything through a workout, so when they're on the field, something as easy as throwing a strike in a crucial situation or taking a deep breath when things don't go your way become very simple tasks. To sum it up: You get results from whatever effort you put in."
It helped set a tone with Ramirez that he carried into Spring Training, where team officials routinely singled him out as a star in camp, based on both his mound work -- he flashed velocity in the upper 90s, a swing-and-miss curve, and an improved change -- and the tenacity with which he went at everything he was asked to do. He was rewarded not only with a ticket to High A Myrtle Beach, but also with that club's Opening Day assignment. But Ramirez didn't celebrate.
"I wasn't concerned with where the Rangers sent me," Ramirez said. "All I knew was that I needed to continue with the routine and focus on my next outing. My goal was to be in [Double-A] Frisco by the end of the season. I felt like that was realistic."
That plan was about the only thing that Ramirez has been off on in the last 10 months.
Ramirez was brilliant in his Pelicans debut, firing 4 2/3 scoreless innings in which he yielded just one hit and one walk, setting nine Wilmington Blue Rocks down on strikes. Five days later, two levels up at Triple-A Round Rock, right-hander Eric Hurley was scratched with a viral infection. Texas could have given the ball to a long man out of the Express bullpen, or rewarded one of the organization's promising arms at Frisco with a spot start in Triple-A. Instead, the Rangers aggressively reached down for Ramirez, who had just pitched his first game at the High A level, giving him the chance to prove himself in a cameo appearance against older competition.
"We were very happy with Neil's ability to make his own adjustments," said Rangers senior director of player development Scott Servais. "He'd taken information from his pitching coaches and applied it to his delivery and his understanding of who he is as a pitcher. His stuff had gotten better but we believed his ability to repeat his delivery would allow him to have success at a high level. Neil stepped up to the challenge. He earned the right to get that opportunity in Round Rock, and he took advantage of it."
Ramirez shut out a strong Omaha lineup for six innings in that start, scattering three singles without issuing a walk and striking out five. It was enough to convince Texas not to return him yet to Myrtle Beach. His next time out, he two-hit Oklahoma City over 5 2/3 innings, surrendering an unearned run and punching out nine. After two more solid starts, Ramirez had his ERA at 1.69. Triple-A opponents were hitting .157 against him. And he'd struck out 25 in 21 1/3 innings, walking only eight.
"It's a humbling, awesome feeling," Ramirez said of the faith the Rangers have shown in him this spring. "I felt like I was prepared to handle the jump, but for them to trust me the way they did -- I just didn't want to let them down."
Ramirez hasn't let anybody down. He leads the Pacific Coast League in opponents' batting average and in fewest baserunners per inning, is second in strikeouts per nine innings, and sits third in the league in ERA. He's a lock to be added to the Rangers' 40-man roster this winter -- that is, unless he reaches Arlington before that, which can't be ruled out.
Despite two injury-marred seasons to start his pro career, Ramirez never lost sight of the long-term goal, doggedly putting in his work with Pichardo, minor league pitching coordinator Danny Clark and former big league right-hander Brad Holman, who was his pitching coach in Hickory in 2009 and 2010 and in Myrtle Beach this year -- for that one start.
"There were some rough spots early on, but it's a process, and I knew I just needed to trust it. I knew I couldn't get too down on myself. That's something I take out there with me every time I get the ball."
It would be foolish to put limits on where Ramirez could finish the 2011 season, but one thing is fairly clear: That return ticket to Myrtle Beach can probably be torn up.
Jamey Newberg is a contributor to MLB.com. A Dallas lawyer, he has been an insane Texas Rangers fan since the days of scheduled doubleheaders, Bat Nights when they actually handed out a piece of lumber instead of a grocery store voucher, and Jim Umbarger. He has covered the Texas Rangers, from the big club down through the entire farm system, since 1998 on his website, NewbergReport.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.