Cuban Missile primed to reach new heights

Cuban Missile primed to reach new heights

Cuban Missile primed to reach new heights
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- A man walks across the parking lot of a major local Arizona store, going relatively unnoticed among the masses, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt.

The only attention he receives comes upon arrival at his car, a black Bentley that stands out among the rows and rows of family-oriented vehicles. The Bentley is sleek, explosive and fun to watch motor after it shifts into high gear.

That automotive description doesn't differ much from its high-performing owner, White Sox shortstop Alexei Ramirez.

"He's a special talent and has been since he arrived on campus," said White Sox general manager Ken Williams.

"Very talented," White Sox hitting coach Greg Walker said of the shortstop. "The more you see, the more you like him. Any time a new coach comes in the organization and has not seen him play and then watches him do his work every day, you realize just how good he is."

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As Ramirez enters his fourth Major League season, the cosmos seem to be aligned for him to take off on a path to national stardom and no longer be a regional sensation.

Ramirez's 2010 effort, during which he hit .282 with 18 home runs, 29 doubles, 83 runs scored and 70 RBIs, earned him his first Louisville Slugger Silver Slugger Award. Despite New York's Derek Jeter winning the Rawlings Gold Glove Award, many thought Ramirez also stood out as the American League's best defensive player at his position.

But let's move back to Ramirez's effort with the bat. Ramirez possesses the talent to hit 25 or 30 home runs if he desires, a slight increase from his career average of 18 over his three seasons, or could become a hitter in the .310 to .320 range. His talent is just that vast.

"We'll start with the .310 average and the home runs will happen," Walker said of his expected No. 8 hitter. "When you try to hit home runs, they don't happen. He's capable of hitting .300 in this league, no doubt."

"I consider myself more of a complete player," Ramirez said through translator Jackson Miranda. "If I'm up there for power, to hit home runs, I can do that. If it's to get on base, I can do that. It's more so to be that complete player."

Like any Superman, Ramirez has his Kryptonite in the form of the month of April. His career average sits at .283, but he has posted only a .205 average through 176 first-month at-bats.

Take away April, and Ramirez has a .292 average.

"All he has to do is hit in April and May and he might win a batting title," Williams said, aiming for sarcasm but including a little bit of reality in his commentary.

"I'm going to try to come up with everything I can to better improve on the first two months," Ramirez said.

Those who believe Ramirez's early struggles come directly from the Chicago cold were pushed aside with a broad smile from the shortstop. Even in Cuba, where the temperatures and wind chill don't approach Chicago's surly April conditions, Ramirez was a notoriously slow starter.

To try to change that particular pattern, Ramirez worked with a sports psychologist during the offseason in Miami.

"It's definitely more mental," Ramirez said of his April struggles, which actually morph into a .285 career May average. "I understand that fact."

White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen doesn't want too much focus on April to get in the middle of Ramirez's abundantly talented game.

"Then you will be bad," Guillen said. "The only thing I can do is pencil him in the lineup and hopefully he doesn't think about it."

Walker pointed out that Ramirez hits plenty of balls hard early in the year. It's just that most of them end up going foul.

"It's almost like center field is in left-center for him," Walker said. "He hits a lot of line drives foul. If he gets center field back in center field by being able to hit the ball to right field and keep the ball fair, he'll do fine in April and May.

"Alexei still pulls a lot of balls, but I really think he's become very efficient at hitting the ball to right field. With the technical aspect of the way he hits the ball to right field, if those components stay in the swing, more balls will be fair early in the year."

Aside from his April struggles, The Missile seems primed for liftoff into an All-Star stratosphere. A four-year, $32.5 million extension agreed upon with the team during the offseason certainly doesn't hurt his disposition, and Ramirez has become more conversational in English.

"With the three of [my kids] in school, they are speaking a mile a minute in English," Ramirez said with a laugh. "I have to catch up. I'm obligated to learn."

"It was a fire drill every time a new pitcher would come in to face Alexei over the first year or two," Walker said. "Now, Alexei is more comfortable, and interacting with players more. He's really funny and having a lot of fun out there. I think he's just going to get better and better."

Among the many pictures featuring great moments in White Sox history dotting their side of the Camelback Ranch hallways, just below Jim Thome's walk-off 500th home run and Dewayne Wise's perfect-game saving catch, there's a shot hanging of Ramirez with his hands in the air and yelling in excitement. That photo captured Ramirez's grand slam, which turned out to be the winning shot in a makeup game against Detroit, and pushed the White Sox to the famous one-game AL Central playoff with the Twins in 2008. To this day, Ramirez has trouble expressing the excitement brought about by that moment.

There figures to be many more moments like that one to come for Ramirez. Much like the Bentley, Ramirez has become a high-performance vehicle not many teams can afford, but the White Sox want to put him on display in 2011.

"This guy went from center field to second base to shortstop," Guillen said of Ramirez's defensive positions over the years. "That's not easy to do. This kid wants to be good. He's working to be good, and that's all you can ask."

Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Being Ozzie Guillen, and follow him on Twitter @scottmerkin. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.