Ramirez made Brewers’ his first choice
When Brewers principal owner Mark Attanasio and manager Ron Roenicke had a late breakfast with free-agent third baseman Aramis Ramirez at the Brentwood Country Club in Los Angeles in late November, neither side knew the interest level of the other in pursuing a deal.
When Ramirez made it clear to the Brewers that Milwaukee was his first choice as a new work address, things quickly accelerated.
“This was a ‘meet and greet’ but it turned into a serious meeting, given Aramis’ desire to play for us, and the chemistry between Ron and Aramis was evident,” recalled Attanasio.
“I took away two things. No. 1, you had a player who wanted to play here. (General manager) Doug (Melvin) talks about that a lot, trying to find guys who want to play for us. We try very hard in the off-season to identify that. To chase a guy who doesn’t really want to be here doesn’t help us that much. Aramis was very specific that this was his first choice.
“Second, there was a very nice chemistry between Aramis and Ron Roenicke. While I wasn’t really looking for that at the meeting, it was evident.”
How exactly did a manager and a player he didn’t know beforehand hit if off so quickly, you ask?
“Those things, sometimes they happen in the first meeting, sometimes it takes awhile,” said Roenicke. “Because Aramis liked the way we play, our ideas on how we go about trying to get our guys to reach their abilities and give themselves the chance to succeed.
“He has played a long time and has been very successful. His thinking lined up with what I was saying. When you’re both saying the same thing and believing the same way, I think there is a connection there that happens in a hurry.”
A few weeks later, the sides agreed on a three-year, $36 million deal, bringing the slugger 90 miles north from his previous club, the Chicago Cubs. It was a preemptive strike by the Brewers to try to soften the inevitable loss to free agency of first baseman Prince Fielder.
Club officials didn’t know at the time that Ryan Braun would avoid a 50-game suspension with a successful appeal of a positive drug test. Whether that happened or not, they figured Ramirez would account for some of Fielder’s missing production, with additional expectations that Mat Gamel would contribute at first base.
“We’re very happy to have him (Ramirez) here,” said Attanasio. “He was a Silver Slugger last year, and Ron was looking for a cleanup hitter. Aramis fills that role nicely. We lost a Silver Slugger at first base, but we picked one up at third base. Nobody seems to be making that parallel.”
Ramirez, 33, indeed is coming off a strong year at the plate. In 149 games with the Cubs, he batted .306 with 26 home runs and 93 RBI, a performance that earned him that first career Silver Slugger nod.
It was the sixth time in his 12-year career that he batted .300 or better, the ninth time he socked 25-plus homers and the eighth time he compiled 90 RBI or more.
“We thought it was very important to figure out who was going to hit fourth in our lineup,” said Roenicke. “There’s not too many good fourth hitters in baseball, or third hitters. Those spots are critical to lineups.
“Certainly if you look at his career, he has had some huge years offensively. I realize the last few haven’t been huge, but they’ve been really good years. He hits for average, he drives the ball and he knocks in runs. That’s what we needed in that spot.”
Despite that consistent track record of offensive production, Ramirez understandably retreats from any suggestion that he is replacing Fielder as a force in the Brewers’ lineup. No one, even a proven veteran, needs that kind of pressure.
“You can’t replace Prince Fielder,” said Ramirez, who talks softly but carries a big stick. “You’re talking about a guy that averaged almost 40 homers and 120 RBI the last four or five years. That’s hard to do.
“I’m not Prince and I don’t want to be Prince. I’m just going to be me and try to do my job. That being said, I think I can get the job done. I’ve been there before. I’m going to do my best to try to help the team to do what I’ve done my whole life. That’s to produce, drive in runs and be there when the team needs me.”
Entering the 2011 season, the Brewers could not envision pursuing a new third baseman so soon. Casey McGehee was coming off a team-MVP season in which he knocked in 104 runs but lapsed into a season-long slump that left him with a .223 average, 13 homers and 67 RBI, not to mention a spot on the bench in the postseason.
Shortly after reaching agreement with Ramirez, the Brewers shipped McGehee to Pittsburgh in a trade for reliever Jose Veras. McGehee had taken his offensive woes into the field as well, committing 20 errors in 139 starts.
Ramirez is hardly a Gold Glove candidate at the hot corner (14 errors in 2011) but is considered a defensive upgrade over McGehee. With steady Alex Gonzalez now at short in place of Yuniesky Betancourt, the Brewers believe the left side of their infield will be more reliable with the glove.
“We can be (a good infield),” said Ramirez. “We have to work and get it done. I don’t really like to assume stuff. I like to get the job done. If we work and do what we’re supposed to do, concentrate, try to separate four at-bats from the field, we should be OK.”
Roenicke, who has hit grounders to Ramirez during workouts, said he likes what he sees.
“He has really good hands; he does,” said Roenicke. “He’s got a good arm. All I know is what I see. What I see and hear from him, which I like so far.”
As for his interest in coming to Milwaukee, Ramirez noted that he has played his entire career in the NL Central, beginning in Pittsburgh. He watched the Brewers emerge as a force in the division and figured they were his kind of team.
“I’ve played against these guys a lot,” said Ramirez. “This seems like a great group of guys. They’ve got the key, and that’s pitching. They’ve got five solid starters. I think this is a good fit for me.”
As for his fortuitous meeting with Attanasio and Roenicke, Ramirez said, “They told me what they think about me and I told them what I think about the team. I told them they have a great team and they proved it last year.
“I had a few choices. I choose to come over here because it’s a great group of guys. It was a real good meeting with the owner and manager. I think it was good for both sides because they liked what they saw about me, too.
“When the owner gets involved, I know we have something going on.”