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Perennial slow starters aim to hit fast track this year

Perennial slow starters aim to hit fast track this year

Last season, three weeks after the Spring Training game schedule started, it was coming to an end. Yet as clubs close in on the three-week mark this season, they're only at about the halfway point of Cactus League and Grapefruit League games.

To accommodate players participating in the World Baseball Classic, camps started earlier -- and will run longer -- than usual. While some managers and established veteran players look at the extended schedule as an added obstacle, there's a certain group of players looking at it in a more positive light.

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For perennial slow starters, it's simply an opportunity to squeeze in extra at-bats during Spring Training -- or, even better, the competitive environment of the World Baseball Classic.

That was the original plan for Brewers third baseman Aramis Ramirez, whose worst career monthly batting average (.257) and on-base percentage (.328) are both in April. The way he saw it, he wanted to play as much as possible in February and March, so by the time April rolled around, he'd be in his May form.

Unfortunately, Ramirez learned the hard way that one of the most concerning pitfalls of playing more spring games is the increased risk of injury. Ramirez hurt his left knee sliding into second base in a March 2 game and hasn't seen the field since.

"It didn't work," Ramirez simply said of his plan.

It also didn't work for notorious slow starter Mark Teixeira. The Yankees slugger came into camp confident his participation in the Classic would help him be in midseason form by the time the regular season rolled around.

"I spend almost all offseason and all Spring Training lifting weights very hard, getting my body in shape for 162 [games]," Teixeira said at the beginning of camp. "Because of that, I think [in] April I'm a little tight, maybe a little sore. This year, I've cut back on that."

Teixeira therefore put in place a plan to ramp up baseball activities and treat the World Baseball Classic opener as if it was the beginning of the season rather than build up to be ready by Opening Day. Instead, he finds himself out of commission after straining a tendon in his right wrist, an injury that will keep him out until at least the middle of May.

However, the wrench thrown into the Spring Training schedule this year hasn't produced solely negative results.

Just take a look at what Blue Jays shortstop Jose Reyes was doing before he left camp to represent the Dominican Republic. Though not necessarily known as a slow starter, Reyes hit just .220 in the opening month last season and is a career .273 hitter in March and April. His average jumps to .289 in May and .300 or above in June, July and August.

"This year, [my swing] has been ready," Reyes said before departing camp. "But I've been working hard to try to put my swing together as soon as possible because I know I have to go to the WBC."

Whatever he was doing seemed to be working, as the four-time All-Star hit a blistering .643 (9-for-14) in his brief time in camp with the Jays. Still, those are just Spring Training numbers and they certainly don't guarantee Reyes will break the .300 mark in April for just the third time in his nine Major League seasons.

Nothing against Reyes, but Orioles shortstop J.J. Hardy is likely hoping Spring Training results aren't an indicator of what's to come in April. The .221 career hitter in March and April (including .184 last season) isn't taking on a heavier workload in the elongated spring and has just one hit in 18 at-bats entering play Friday.

Hardy's former teammate -- and fellow slow starter -- Mark Reynolds is also approaching this spring just as any other, yet he has been red hot with his new club. With the Indians, Reynolds is hitting .417 (10-for-24) entering Friday, a vast improvement from his .170 average last spring en route to putting up a disastrous .143 mark in April.

Even if players such as Hardy and Reynolds aren't taking advantage of the added at-bat opportunities in camp, they still have the luxury of added time with and instruction from teammates, coaches and the training staff.

"The beauty of a longer Spring Training is I get more work with the coaches and more side work," said Padres pitcher Tyson Ross, who hasn't had enough big league experience to be deemed a slow starter, but is trying to use the extra time to earn a spot in San Diego's starting rotation.

In this instance, "beauty" is certainly in the eye of the beholder, as it's probably one of the last words Yankees manager Joe Girardi would use to describe this year's unique Spring Training.

Not all managers are opposed to the extra time though, as Royals skipper Ned Yost views the Classic as an opportunity for some of his guys to play meaningful games well before other players have the chance.

One player in particular Yost is hoping will benefit from the tournament is first baseman Eric Hosmer. The 23-year-old struggled all season in 2012, but especially in April, when he hit just .188 en route to a disappointing .232 season average.

"Regular spring games don't mean a dadgummed thing, but ... they're playing in a tournament that means something," Yost said after Hosmer was selected to replace Teixeira on Team USA. "It's great playing with stars from different organizations; there's a lot you can learn in those types of situations and it's a very competitive tournament."

Paul Casella is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @paul_casella. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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