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NL CENTRAL Ramirez might be the Pirates' most important player

Tuesday, March 25, 2003

He was one of the majors' top young power hitters before injuries hit in 2002.
KISSIMMEE, Fla. (AP) -- The Pittsburgh Pirates' most important player was back in the lineup Wednesday after nearly a week off, and nobody seemed to care he went 0-for-3.
Brian Giles is the Pirates' best player. Kris Benson is the key to their rotation. Mike Williams might be the most underrated closer in the majors.
But if the Pirates are to make a move in the competitive NL Central -- something they've done only once in 10 years -- they badly need Aramis Ramirez to again be the player he was in 2001.
Most importantly, they need the third baseman to keep away from injuries, something he couldn't do during a disappointing 2002 season that effectively negated his breakthrough 2001 season.
"I anticipate him having the kind of season he had in 2001, if he stays healthy," general manager Dave Littlefield said.
"We weren't the same team when he got hurt," manager Lloyd McClendon said.
Detect a theme?
Strong in 2001
The Pirates were terrible in 2001, losing 100 games for the first time since 1985, but Ramirez couldn't have had a much better season. At age 23, he hit .300 with 34 homers and 112 RBIs even as the Pirates moved into PNC Park, which is more challenging to right-handed power hitters than Three Rivers Stadium was.
However, just when Ramirez seemed poised to become one of the majors' top young power hitters, he charged the mound after being hit by a Ben Sheets pitch April 17 in Milwaukee. Bad decision.
He badly sprained his right ankle during the ensuing fight and never was the same hitter again, as evidenced by his statistics: .234, 18 homers, 71 RBIs. His numbers would have been even worse if it weren't for a 22-for-54 streak over 13 games from Aug. 27 through Sept. 7.
The sore ankle bothered him not only in the field, where he often couldn't get to balls down the line that required quick reaction time, but also at the plate. Pitchers constantly worked him outside with pitches that forced him to lunge and chase, negating his short, quick power swing.
Ramirez also put on weight during the season, causing McClendon to challenge him to get himself into better shape. He also gave him four other words of advice: stay out of fights.
Ready for 2003
Ramirez responded by dropping about 20 pounds, without losing any muscle mass. Predictably, he got off to a strong start this spring with four homers and 10 RBIs in his first 33 at-bats.
But when he came up with sore hamstring before a March 13 exhibition game, McClendon wouldn't risk a repeat of 2002. As a result, what was supposed to be a one- or two-day layoff turned into five games off.
"With his history, we're not about to take any chances," McClendon said.
Now, with plenty of time left for him to get his swing back before the season starts, Ramirez played five innings Wednesday in an 11-4 victory over the Astros.
"For having six days off, I thought he swung the bat well," McClendon said. "I thought his bat speed and his timing were fine. He had a couple of good swings. (Astros starter) Shane Reynolds pitched him tough with some breaking balls, and it looked like he reacted well to them."
Ramirez's productivity is critical to the Pirates not just because he drives in runs, but he protects No. 3 hitter Brian Giles.
Giles hardly had a poor season a year ago despite Ramirez's dropoff; he hit .298 with 38 homers and 103 RBIs, numbers very close to those of 2001 (.309, 37 homers, 95 RBIs). But, with teams no longer worrying Ramirez might hurt them, Giles walked 135 times -- 45 more than in 2001.
"If Rammy's healthy, that doesn't happen," McClendon said. "It's been obvious since the first day of spring training that Aramis is on a mission to wipe out what happened last year."