When the Milwaukee Brewers signed Aramis Ramirez in mid-December, he was billed as one half of the replacement for the departures of Prince Fielder and Casey McGehee.
A career .283 hitter who has hit 30 home runs only four times in a 15-year career, the expectation for the soon-to-be-34-year-old was to just keep on, keepin' on.
General manager Doug Melvin believed enough in Ramirez's ability to do that to give him a three-year deal, at the end of which Ramirez will be 37.
Along with that signing came a disclaimer for Brewers fans: He's a "slow starter."
Ten games into the season Ramirez is playing right into that description, hitting a robust .114 with five RBI and two extra base hits.
The problem with such a start at this point in his career is that Ramirez is no longer the player he was at 26, 27 or even 30, when he started sluggishly for the Chicago Cubs before catching fire. It's also hard to look at his career track and say "he'll get out of it."
In 2005, he didn't hit until June, in 2006 he didn't hit until August. In 2002 and 2010 he never hit at all.
Yet in 2009 and in 2011, he hit right away.
There's no real pattern here the Brewers can latch on to. This could be the Ramirez we see all season, or he could turn it around this week. Or next month. Or in three months.
The real fear should be this: Is this the beginning of the end?
In the steroid testing era of baseball, players no longer get better at 34 and 35 the way they did in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The game, and age, is once again taking its natural toll.
A player's body is a clock whose end time no one can forecast.
Jermaine Dye hit .292 with 34 home runs and received American League MVP votes for the Chicago White Sox in 2008 at the age of 34, then started the 2009 season on fire, hitting .302 with 20 homers the first half of the season.
Then, suddenly, inexplicably, it went away. He hit .179 the final 60 games of the season with 7 homers. That was the end. He didn't accept several small contract offers in 2010, and retired.
Jim Edmonds hit .301 with 42 homers and drove in 111 at the age of 34 for the World Series-winning St. Louis Cardinals in 2004. His numbers dipped to .263/29/89 the next year, to .257/19/70 in 2006 at the age of 36.
He held on for four more seasons, including a 73-game stretch here in Milwaukee in 2010 where he hit a respectable .286. But he was never the same regular, everyday player he was in his early 30s.
They are not outliers, just as examples of position players similar to Ramirez who continue to hit and play like Derek Jeter and Todd Helton are not. But, you'd be hard pressed to find anyone that says the Jeters and Heltons and Paul Konerkos are the same guys in their mid-to-late-30s as they were at 28.
Right now, the Brewers can live with this unknown around Ramirez. Ryan Braun is back at it, hitting .343 with a .943 OPS (albeit with just one homer and four RBI). Jonathan Lucroy, Carlos Gomez and Corey Hart are hitting well over .300.
The problems with the starting pitching are masking Ramirez's issues, for now.
If the starters get on track and suddenly the Brewers are losing 4-3, the spotlight undoubtedly turns to the third baseman.
That may happen as quickly as tomorrow, as the Brewers begin a nine-game homestand against the best team in baseball, the 9-1 Los Angeles Dodgers. They're not really hitting either, with only three regulars batting over .270, but the Dodgers pitching staff has been strong, sporting a team ERA of 2.97, WHIP of 1.110 and 9.2 strikeouts per nine innings.
Brewers fans have watched Ramirez on TV the last seven games, but now he has no excuse but to produce. He'll be indoors, Braun is always on base in front of him, Hart is mashing behind him.
If he doesn't warm up soon, the heat will definitely be on.
Jim Owczarski is an award-winning sports journalist and comes to Milwaukee by way of the Chicago Sun-Times Media Network.
A three-year Wisconsin resident who has considered Milwaukee a second home for the better part of seven years, he brings to the market experience covering nearly all major and college sports.
To this point in his career, he has been awarded six national Associated Press Sports Editors awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, breaking news and projects. He is also a four-time nominee for the prestigious Peter J. Lisagor Awards for Exemplary Journalism, presented by the Chicago Headline Club, and is a two-time winner for Best Sports Story. He has also won numerous other Illinois Press Association, Illinois Associated Press and Northern Illinois Newspaper Association awards.
Jim's career started in earnest as a North Central College (Naperville, Ill.) senior in 2002 when he received a Richter Fellowship to cover the Chicago White Sox in spring training. He was hired by the Naperville Sun in 2003 and moved on to the Aurora Beacon News in 2007 before joining OnMilwaukee.com.
In that time, he has covered the events, news and personalities that make up the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, NCAA football, baseball and men's and women's basketball as well as boxing, mixed martial arts and various U.S. Olympic teams.
Golf aficionados who venture into Illinois have also read Jim in GOLF Chicago Magazine as well as the Chicago District Golfer and Illinois Golfer magazines.