Ramirez hopes to put it all together with Braves

Ramirez hopes to put it all together with Braves

JUPITER, Fla. -- Wilkin Ramirez is the kind of player who can toy with your emotions.

He has eye-popping tools -- blazing speed, incredible power, a solid build -- and there are times when the 25-year-old puts it all on display and makes you believe he can actually be a star in the Majors.

Then there are times when inconsistencies and plate discipline make you think he'll never put it together.

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Braves hitting coach Larry Parrish knows these struggles very well, after serving as Ramirez's manager for a few years with the Tigers' Triple-A affiliate in Toledo. This was before the Tigers finally gave up on him, before the Braves took a chance on him and before Ramirez impressed in Spring Training and seemingly put himself in the mix for a reserve outfield spot on the Opening Day roster.

"[Tigers manager Jim] Leyland always said it over there," Parrish recalled. "He said you look at him and you say, 'He might not ever make it. But if he makes it, he may make it big.' You know what I'm saying? Because this sort of light comes on and then ..."

Then sometimes, it just goes off.

Leyland had him in spring camp three times during Ramirez's eight years in the Tigers' organization, but he only saw him in the Majors for a prolonged stretch as a September callup in 2009 -- when Ramirez played in 15 games and batted .364.

At 17, Ramirez was signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2003 as an infielder, but he moved to the outfield because of spotty defense. He missed all of '04 because of shoulder surgery, then about half of the '06 campaign after fouling a ball off his shin.

And somewhere along the way -- despite Ramirez playing in the 2008 and '10 Futures Games -- the Tigers essentially gave up on him.

"This is a business," Ramirez said in Spanish prior to the Braves' 4-0 loss to the Cardinals at Roger Dean Stadium on Tuesday. "I guess they felt like they had someone who could do the job better. I don't know. I really don't know. Because one day I'm a prospect on the team and I'm in the Futures Game, and the next I'm gone. And I don't really know. I don't understand."

The Tigers designated Ramirez for assignment in late July, so the Braves took a chance on the right-handed hitter with a world of potential, but hardly a track record to prove it. They picked him up for a player to be named later or cash, then invited him to Spring Training six months later.

That decision has paid off so far.

Ramirez has impressed the Braves with his power -- especially when he hit a line-drive homer to dead center field at Champion Stadium on Sunday. He has shown off blazing speed and an ability to play all three outfield positions. And he has even displayed a discipline that has been lacking throughout his professional career -- with a .400 batting average and only one strikeout in 20 at-bats.

The question is: is this too small a sample size to properly evaluate Ramirez, or is he finally becoming the player everyone had been waiting for?

That remains to be seen.

"He's always had great tools, and you wait for him to kind of figure it all out," Braves general manager Frank Wren said. "If he figures it all out, he has the ability to be a very good everyday Major League player. To this point, he hasn't been able to do it at the highest level, but the talent's there."

Ramirez is 6-foot-2 and is listed at 190 pounds, but he scoffs at that. "I haven't weighed 190 pounds since I got into the big leagues," he said with a laugh. The chiseled Ramirez said he's actually at 230 pounds.

And he said he's a new man.

Through 728 Minor League games, Ramirez has hit 100 homers, stolen 143 bases and at one point was ranked among the top prospects in the Tigers' system. But during that span, he's also hit .258 with a .316 on-base percentage, struck out 632 more times than he walked and struggled mightily with breaking balls.

This offseason, Ramirez -- admittedly motivated by the Tigers' decision to cut ties with him -- worked "the hardest I've ever worked in my life." He went back to his home city of Bani, where he ran up mountains, sprinted on the sand and had friends throw him countless breaking balls and changeups all winter.

This spring, Parrish has been trying to get Ramirez's hands looser in the hope that it will help his swing become more fluid, so he took his bat off his shoulder and got him to hold it more upright prior to loading.

One of the drills they've tried has Ramirez sitting on a chair while hitting, so that he can concentrate more on hand rhythm than leg movement. After trying it for the first time on Sunday, Ramirez filled in for Jason Heyward and had many raving about his 2-for-4, three-RBI game.

"He's got some juice," manager Fredi Gonzalez said that afternoon, "he's talented."

Of course, it'll be Gonzalez's choice whether or not to clear a spot on the 25-man roster for Ramirez in April. But even if he doesn't, and Ramirez winds up in Triple-A Gwinnett, the youngster can make a good impression this spring so that the Braves think of him first if they ever need a callup during the season.

When asked which ballplayer Ramirez reminds him most of, Parrish didn't hesitate.

"Moises Alou," he declared. Of course, that's only if he cashes in on his hard-to-miss gifts.

"For him," Parrish said, "it was just sort of getting over that next little hump."

Ramirez believes he has, and he's determined to prove it.

"I know I can play," he said. "I have the mentality that I'm a star and that I'm going to be the ballplayer I always imagined myself being. None of that is about what happened in the past. That's in the past. Now it's time to move forward."

Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.