As you know if you've been reading the site the last couple of weeks, I am offering capsule scouting reports of the players who made our top 25 in the Community Prospect Rankings.
As always, I offer these write-ups with the caveat that I'm not a scout, haven't seen these players, and am simply summarizing the information that is out there about them.
With that, after the jump is the write-up on the #5 player on the LSB Community Prospect Rankings, Neil Ramirez...
Neil Ramirez is a 6'3", 185 lbs. righthanded pitcher who will turn 23 this coming May. Two years ago, the idea that Ramirez would even be among the top 10 Ranger prospects would have been laughable...the #44 overall selection in the 2007 draft, Ramirez was already being consigned to bust status, the one miss out of five first round picks that had produced two well-regarded pitching prospects (Blake Beavan and Michael Main), the team's starting centerfielder (Julio Borbon), and a college pitcher who had just finished putting up a 114 ERA+ in 19 starts for the Rangers that season.
Jamey Newberg had Ramirez at #29 in his pre-2010 organizational rankings, behind Mike Bianucci, and there may have been a sense that even that ranking was too high, despite it being a significant drop from his placement at #12 on Jamey's list the year before. He was coming off a season where, as a 20 year old at low-A Hickory, he'd posted a 4.75 ERA in 66.1 innings, while walking 41 batters, hitting another 14, and striking out just 56. Walking and hitting as many batters as you K is a bad thing, and Ramirez seemed like an afterthought, a fringe prospect in the Ranger system.
How quickly things can change...right now, Ramirez is arguably the most valuable and highly regarded of the Rangers' five first rounders in 2007, and you could legitimately defend placing Ramirez as high as #3 on the Rangers prospect list, making him a fringe top-100 candidate on the national scene.
Ramirez signed late in the 2007 draft period, as an above slot guy who received a $1,000,000 bonus. Drafted out of high school from Virginia, Ramirez was ranked #71 in the Baseball America pre-draft top 200 rankings, with BA knocking him for inconsistency due to mechanical flaws. His fastball was reported to be able to get up to 96, and BA said Ramirez would "flash" an above-average curveball, but his stock had fallen from the previous summer, when BA had classified him as one of the top high school pitchers in the nation.
Ramirez made his professional debut with Spokane in the Northwest League in 2008, and while he ended up with a gaudy 2.66 ERA in 44 innings facing players who were generally older than him, there were some worrisome signs. His K rate was impressive, at over 10 batters per 9, but Ramirez walked 29 hitters and hit another 6 in his stint in the Northwest League. He followed that campaign up with his disappointing 2009 season with Hickory in the Sally League.
Ramirez's turnaround from potential bust to top prospect began in 2010, when he spent the year repeating at Hickory. On the surface, his performance was discouraging -- a 4.43 ERA in 140.1 innings, representing only a nominal improvement over his 2009 ERA, and a bad number for a 21 year old in the pitcher-friendly South Atlantic League.
Drilling down, however, there was reason for optimism...Ramirez's K rate rose to 9.1 per 9 from 7.6 the year before, his walk rate dropped dramatically (5.6 to 2.4), and while he still hit 17 batters, that was only three more, in 74 additional innings, than he had hit the season before. In August, 2010, towards the end of the minor league season, Jason Cole wrote that Ramirez was one of the most improved players in the organization. John Sickels also took note, listing him as the Rangers' #8 prospect coming into the 2011 season, and listing him as a potential breakout candidate.
Ramirez apparently didn't rest on his success after his 2010 campaign. This past winter and during spring training, the buzz was about Ramirez, how hard he was working, and what great shape he was in in preparing for the 2011 season. Ramirez, along with Mike Olt, were pegged as guys to watch in the 2011 season, prospects who could take a big step forward.
Ramirez started the 2011 season with Myrtle Beach in the high-A Carolina League, and in his first start with the Pelicans, he went 4.2 innings, striking out 9, walking 1, and allowing just 1 hit (and no runs). Then, with Round Rock Express starter Eric Hurley being sidelined with a viral infection, Ramirez was called up for an emergency start at AAA. It was a huge step for a guy with only one game above low-A, but Ramirez had turned some heads, and the decision was made that he'd earned the chance to fill in on a temporary basis for a start or two.
As it turned out, Ramirez never returned to the Carolina League. Ramirez allowed no runs over 11 innings in his first two starts for the Express, and his success, and ability to maintain his poise and composure when facing more experienced hitters, resulted in Ramirez staying in the Round Rock rotation even after Hurley returned.
Ramirez did suffer some bumps on the road in 2011, as he was placed on the disabled list in early July with shoulder fatigue, activated in mid-July, then put back on the d.l. shortly thereafter with continued shoulder issues. When Ramirez was finally re-activated, he was sent to AA Frisco, where he pitched 19 innings over six games for the RoughRiders, as the organization chose to handle him carefully upon his return from injury. Ramirez was then promoted back to Round Rock on September 4, where he finished the minor league season. Ramirez then pitched in a couple of games in the Arizona Fall League before being de-activated from the roster in a move planned to limit his innings.
Ramirez ended up logging 98 innings in 2011, primarily in AAA, posting a 3.12 ERA with 119 strikeouts, 44 walks, and just 7 homers allowed. Ramirez dropped his HBPs dramatically in 2011, as well, hitting just 7 batters, after hitting 37 in 250 pro innings prior to 2010.
Ramirez was added to the 40 man roster this offseason, and like fellow addition Martin Perez, Ramirez will likely start the season in the AAA rotation, but is a candidate to join the major league club at some point in 2012, either in the rotation or out of the bullpen, depending on need. There was some thought that Ramirez could end up pitching out of the bullpen for the Rangers late in the 2011 season, much like Neftali Feliz did in 2009, but his shoulder fatigue and struggles in the second half put the brakes on that notion. Still, if Ramirez pitches well in AAA this season, he could end up being utilized as a reliever at some point in 2012. If things go well for Ramirez, he'll spend some time in the majors in 2012, and be competing for a rotation spot in 2013.
Ramirez is a three pitch pitcher. Jason Cole wrote that Ramirez was at 91-96 with his fastball in AAA this year, although in a relief outing in a major league spring game in March, 2011, he brought it as high as 98 mph. Ramirez's curve ball is his best secondary pitch, a plus pitch that can generate swings and misses, although Nathan Rode, in the PCL prospect rankings chat session (Ramirez didn't make the top 20, though Rode said he was in the 21-25 range), described Ramirez's changeup as a plus pitch.
Like Martin Perez, Ramirez's challenge is in improving his command, particularly of his offspeed pitches. Curveballs that are swing-and-miss pitches in the minor leagues won't translate in the majors if they can't be thrown for strikes, and that's generally more difficult to do than with a slider. As I wrote with Martin Perez, I think Ramirez could have some Jekyll-and-Hyde experiences as a starter once he gets to the majors, looking untouchable one day when he's got all his pitches working, and getting knocked out by the third inning the next time around...shades of Derek Holland, 2012.
Ramirez's ceiling is generally considered to be that of a #3 starter, though you could argue that his work ethic and makeup could allow him to exceed that. His floor is probably as a hard-throwing middle reliever, assuming he can command one of his offspeed pitches enough to be able to mix it in effectively when facing just three or four batters.