Washington Nationals: Sometimes the Best Prospects Come Out of Nowhere

Farid RushdiAnalyst IJanuary 27, 2011

My Son Last Year: Wow, Can He Hit a Curve ...
My Son Last Year: Wow, Can He Hit a Curve ...

Bad teams don't become good ones because of can't-miss prospects like Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper. First-round picks are expected to succeed at the major league level.

No, teams like the Washington Nationals must rely on late-round picks who have no business becoming major leaguers to fill the gaping holes in their roster. When that happens, fortunes change on a dime.

The Nationals need those kinds of players—players like J.P. Ramirez.

Every morning since he was a kid, J.P. Ramirez dragged himself out of bed and headed out to the batting cage, sleep in his eyes and bat in his hand. Every morning, he put the bat on his shoulder and took a deep breath. And he began to swing.

Over and over, hour after hour, ash met leather. Line drives seared through the morning dew as they tried to escape the confines of the cage.

And he wouldn’t stop.

Over time, the bones in his fingers warped, the result of living his life with a bat in his hand.

And he wouldn’t stop.

The skin on Ramirez’ hands calloused to the point of making them almost useless for anything other than swinging his bat.

And still he wouldn’t stop.

He can no longer flatten his hands without a debilitating pain shooting through his knuckles.

Yet he keeps on swinging.

Like a car odometer on a family trip, the swing count spirals upwards.

Two hundred swings. Three hundred. Four hundred.

By his 500th swing, Ramirez was drowning in sweat and comfortable that he had wrung every last ounce of strength from his muscles.

With that, he would leave the cage and return to the world of a teenager, where school and tests and girls and food and cars occupy his time.

Until the next morning, that is, when he would once again grab his bat, enter the cage and hit 500 balls as hard as his hurting hands would allow.

This unyielding approach to perfection is what got J.P. Ramirez noticed in his hometown of New Braunfels, Texas. He wanted to be not just the best, but the very best baseball player to ever don a Canyon High School jersey.

To do it, he had to be better than the Cardinals’ Lance Berkman, an alum of Canyon High.

It wouldn’t be difficult. All it would take, he thought, was 500 swings a day.

Every day.

The local paper named him the best first-year player in the conference.

And he kept on swinging.

He was named all-state (a big accomplishment in Texas) in his sophomore, junior and senior years. He was a Louisville Slugger All-American his senior season and a Baseball America second-team All-American.

Canyon coach Pete Garza, who has seen them all come and go since 1968, said recently that Ramirez was simply “...the best I’ve ever coached. As far as work ethic goes, he’s definitely at the top.”

Better than even Lance Berkman.

One hundred swings. Two hundred.

The batting cage is in his backyard, and every morning his neighbors awake to the sound of 500 balls cutting through the humid air, reverberating on their roofs and their garages and their cars.

"For some reason the neighbors don't mind the noise," Mary Ramirez said. "They understand it's J.P. I guess they figured they'd need to get used to it."

Three hundred swings. Four hundred.

His father began to take J.P. to the batting cages at the age of four, hitting 75 mph pitches with ease. By seven, he could get around on a 95 mph fastball.

Five hundred swings.

After his amazing high school career, he accepted a scholarship to play baseball for powerhouse Tulane University. Clubs were so sure that he was going to college that no one dared draft him and risk losing their pick.

Except the Washington Nationals, that is, who took Ramirez with their selection in the 15th round in 2008's amateur draft.

Normally, 15th rounders get bus fare and a package of Twinkies for signing their contract.

Ramirez got $1.2 million.

Negotiations remained very quiet between the Nationals and Ramirez until it became apparent that the team would not be able to sign top pick Aaron Crow in the waning minutes of the signing period. A quick phone call was all it took. Ramirez was a National.

By way of comparison, Drew Storen, one of the Nationals’ first-round picks in 2009, signed for just $300,000 more than Ramirez, who was drafted 14 rounds later.

One hundred swings. Two hundred.

Ramirez arrived in Viera, Florida late in 2008 and played in the nine remaining games for the Nationals’ Gulf Coast League rookie team, hitting .407 with a homer and 12 RBI, leading the team to within a game of the GCL Championship.

Three hundred swings. Four hundred.

In 2009, the 5’10”, 185-pound Ramirez played for the Vermont Lake Monsters, a Class-A team in the New York-Penn League, where he faced 20-something college pitchers almost every night.

In 72 games, Ramirez batted .264-4-39 with six steals. Over a full major league season, that would translate into .264-8-78 and a dozen steals, not very good by his standards. He had to get better.

And so he returned home to New Braunfels after the season and took a day or two off. Then one morning, he stood up, walked out to his backyard batting cage, let the handle of his bat slip into his curled fingers, placed it on his shoulder and took a deep breath.

And he started to swing.

One hundred swings. Two hundred. Three hundred.

Ramirez was promoted to Class-A Hagerstown and spent all of 2010 there, batting .296-16-75 with 32 doubles, four triples and a .341 on-base percentage. He improved in all facets of his game and has become an even stronger defensive player.

He’ll almost certainly start 2011 with High-A Potomac and if he continues to play well should be promoted to Double-A Harrisburg by season's end.  

He is just 20 and should reach the major leagues sometime in 2013. Very impressive indeed, perhaps even worthy of taking a couple of weeks off and away from baseball.

Yet just a few days after the season ended, when the pain began to subside in his hands and the inflammation lessened, J.P. Ramirez woke up early, dragged himself out of bed and walked down the stone path towards his batting cage.

He took a deep breath and focused on the pitching machine. And the balls started to fly his way.

One hundred swings. Two hundred...

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