This is the sixth in a series of stories that will take you Around the Horn with the 2013 Milwaukee Brewers and has already covered the rotation, bullpen, catcher, first base and second base. Up next: Third base.
PHOENIX -- The most notable thing about Aramis Ramirez's arrival for a second season with the Brewers was that no one mentioned Prince Fielder.
That certainly wasn't the case last year.
All Ramirez was expected to do in 2012 was fill the cleanup spot vacated by Fielder, a homegrown star who played every single day, hit 50 home runs one season and drove in 141 in another. Ramirez swatted away comparisons all spring before letting his production do the talking, finishing his debut season in Milwaukee with a .300 average, 27 home runs, 105 RBIs and a National League-best 50 doubles. He finished ninth in NL MVP Award balloting.
And slowly but surely, Ramirez stopped fielding the Fielder questions. By last week, when he reported to Maryvale Baseball Park, the big man did not come up at all.
"He didn't have to be anybody but himself. He's putting up numbers that will stand with anybody," Brewers hitting coach Johnny Narron said. "He's Aramis Ramirez, and that's enough said."
The Brewers hope he does it again in the second season of his three-year deal.
"There's no reason he shouldn't be able to be the same guy," manager Ron Roenicke said.
That guy is entering his 20th year in professional baseball and his 13th full season in the Major Leagues, a career that began as a 19-year-old with the Pirates in 1998 before Ramirez moved to the Cubs and then the Brewers. If he's healthy he should top 8,000 big league plate appearances, 2,000 hits and 1,000 runs scored in 2013, and his 342 home runs rank him 17th among active players at the end of last season.
Ramirez's ninth-place MVP finish was the best of his career, in his age-34 season, and helped the Brewers rank first in the NL in runs and home runs, despite Fielder's high-profile free-agent departure.
"That's how you want to do it," Ramirez said. "You want to show the new fans, the franchise, the front office that they made the right choice by signing me in the offseason. That's what they're all looking for -- to get results when they spend money."
Ramirez has already set a lofty goal for 2013 -- to eliminate the traditional April funk that leaves him playing catch-up as the weather warms up. He and Roenicke have yet to follow up on a chat last week in which they determined to brainstorm changes to Ramirez's spring schedule. It might be as simple as altering his workload once the Cactus League gets under way to playing either more games or fewer. This year's elongated schedule, a side effect of the World Baseball Classic, gives the Brewers a number of options.
But he does not plan any changes in the field, where Ramirez is coming off one of his finest seasons. His seven errors were his fewest since 1999, when Ramirez committed three in only 17 games. Last year, he played 143 games in the field, and at least two of the errors came while chasing foul popups.
What was behind his defensive resurgence?
"A lot of things come into play," Ramirez said. "First of all, we have a real good infield at Miller Park. The field is in really good shape. In Chicago, it's not, and then all those day games and stuff. It's rough. That has a lot to do with it."
His defense, especially his accurate throws and ability to charge bunts and choppers, came as a pleasant surprise to Brewers officials, who signed Ramirez mainly for his bat. In Chicago, he'd developed a reputation for defensive malaise, something Roenicke never saw in Milwaukee.
"From what I see, he takes pride in his defense," Roenicke said. "He knows it's important. Whatever guys thought about him before and what comments were made, I wasn't there to view that, so I don't know."
Ramirez's three-year, $36 million contract was back-loaded, so his salary will jump from $6 million to $10 million in 2013 and $16 million in 2014, when Ramirez will turn 36 and, if he stays healthy, top 15 years of Major League service time.
"I feel like I can still play," Ramirez said. "I can get the job done. I'm not 25 anymore, I'm 34, so I have to take care of myself a little better, I have to work a little harder so I can stay on the field.
"That's the toughest part when you get older, to stay on the field. I just work a little harder and eat better, just take care of yourself overall. I feel pretty good. I'll be 35 this summer, but I still feel like I can play."
All that was missing in 2012 was a trip to the postseason. Ramirez picked the Brewers in part because he viewed them as a contender, but an early offensive funk followed by bullpen woes knocked the team from contention in the NL Central. It took a furious late-season surge to get back into the race for the second NL Wild Card before the Brewers were eliminated with two games to play.
"We played for something for 159 games, and that's all you can ask for," Ramirez said. "If you're competitive, you had a good season."