Heliot Ramos wants to learn. In the outfield, where he’s intent on staying in center. At the plate, where he’s determined to improve at identifying pitches to swing at. In conversations, where the Puerto Rico native has become comfortably bilingual.
He knew if he wanted to absorb lessons from each coach, learning the language would be helpful. Spanish-only speakers aren’t rare in big-league clubhouses, but it’s easier for players to be comfortable if they can bounce from one culture and language to another.
And so he jumped into conversations in English even if he didn’t have command just yet. He and his girlfriend of two years normally talk to each other in English, practicing away from baseball practices.
“I really wanted to learn,” the Giants’ top outfield prospect said recently over the phone. “Even if I didn’t know English [after I was drafted], I was trying to talk to everyone.”
Kyle Haines remembers those moments, too, after the then-17-year-old Ramos entered the organization as a first-round pick in 2017. The tools were easy to spot even then, but so were the intangibles.
“His competitiveness — he wants to win,” the farm director said. “And I think in a way he wanted to learn English just because he didn’t want to fail.”
Succeeding in baseball, a sport virtually built upon failure, might never be tougher than it is right now for prospects.
Last season saw thousands of baseball hopefuls stuck at home without minor league baseball to play. Ramos was among the handful of prospects valued enough to make the cut for the Giants’ alternate site, calling Sacramento home for a few months and getting reps for the first time against Triple-A and, in some cases, major league pitching.
He moved around the outfield, though he sees himself as a future center fielder, which the Giants are very much open to. Haines said he has the footspeed now to stay there, but needs to see how the stocky, 6-foot 21-year-old grows.
At the plate, the coaches harped upon the same advice they gave the major leaguers: to hunt pitches he can clobber and ignore the rest.
“I was really focusing on looking for my pitch and knowing what [pitch] I’m best against,” said Ramos, who played 25 games in Double-A in 2019.
“I think we definitely saw an improvement from there,” Haines said.
Plate discipline has been an increasing focus for the toolsy Ramos, who broke out in ’19 thanks to improvements in the area. He walked more and struck out less in compiling a .290/.369/.481 slashline with 16 home runs in 444 plate appearances between High-A and Double-A. He said he “learned so much” that campaign and was eager to show it off, eager to continue to hone it on his way to the majors. The pandemic hit, and his developments were tracked by the Giants but not seen publicly.
How do you properly evaluate a prospect who saw a caliber of pitching he wouldn’t face otherwise but did not have nearly the amount of reps or actual game action that teams and players want?
“I don’t think we’ll know until next year,” Haines said. “But from all the conversations I’ve had with all those players, they’ve talked about how they got to see pitchers throw a lot more offspeed in hitters counts, for example, whereas at the lower levels, you’re more likely to see fastballs.
“…They got to experience things that maybe they normally wouldn’t have got to experience during the year.”
Ramos’ year continued in the Arizona Fall League — “I actually got to play against other teams,” he said — but his play was sidetracked by a second oblique injury that year, the first coming in spring training 1.0. Even in a season in which he was included in the player pool, he didn’t see enough time on the field. In Baseball America’s latest rankings, Ramos fell from the No. 58 prospect in baseball to No. 83.
Ramos said he’s feeling healthy and already is looking toward next season as the season that he breaks through and debuts in the majors. Of course, he said he has thought he could get to the big leagues every year he has been a Giant. “I’ve got a lot of confidence.”
If 2020 had a minor league season, Ramos would have opened at Double-A. That’s where Haines ideally would like to see him to begin 2021, too, and allow his play to demand the organization to move him up. What could complicate that decision is MLB delaying spring training and the start of the seasons for Double-A teams and below as a way of staggering groups of players; the further-down prospects would arrive in camp once Triple-A and major league players left. Still, the expectation is Ramos will pick up where he left off in 2019, at Richmond.
That would move him a step or two behind good friend Joey Bart, whose major league debut he watched with great anticipation last season. A step or two ahead of top-prospect Marco Luciano, who, “oh my God, he’s strong, he’s got a lot of power.” A step or two ahead of another highly ranked outfielder in Alexander Canario, who is so good “it’s just crazy.”
“We got a lot of talent here,” said Ramos, who can communicate with all of it.