Cubs

Can Neil Ramirez be an X-factor for Cubs bullpen down the stretch?

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Can Neil Ramirez be an X-factor for Cubs bullpen down the stretch?

The Cubs entered the 2015 season feeling pretty good about their bullpen, thanks in large part to Neil Ramirez's breakout in 2014.

But the 26-year-old right-hander has battled injuries this year and hasn't gotten into a rhythm as Joe Maddon continues to try to fit all the pieces together in the Cubs bullpen.

With only two weeks left in the regular season, Ramirez is back and looks like his 2014 self with back-to-back scoreless appearances against the Cardinals over the weekend, striking out four in two innings.

[RELATED - Questions about Cubs playoff rotation begin with Jason Hammel]

With a Cubs bullpen struggling to find consistency beyond Hector Rondon and Pedro Strop, Ramirez could bring stability and serve as an X-factor for Maddon with the postseason just around the corner.

"That was nice to see," Maddon said after Ramirez's second outing against the Cardinals Sunday. "He really threw the ball well; velocity is up. Hopefully his confidence is going to benefit from that moment.

"You might try to get him in a little bit more often if he's throwing that good."

Maddon said he doesn't yet have a specific role for Ramirez, who was activated from the disabled list earlier this month after missing five weeks with an abdominal strain.

Ramirez has also had lingering shoulder issues all year, but he can still dial it up in the mid 90s with his fastball at times and said he feels a lot more like the pitcher who put up a 1.44 ERA and struck out 53 batters in 43.2 innings for the Cubs last season.

"It took all year to get there, but I'm there now," Ramirez said. "My shoulder feels loose now like it did last year. I feel like I can let it go."

Ramirez credits his throwing program with Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio and bullpen coach Lester Strode for helping him regain his 2014 form.

While he doesn't feel his stuff is consistent yet, Ramirez - a former starter - is drawing on his knowledge of pitching to get by even without his best stuff.

"You really have to learn how to deal with the failure, the ups and downs and stuff like that," he said. "I think not having the ability to just go out there and blow it by guys, you have to pitch.

"So right now, I know that I might not be able to run that fastball by guys as much and I've gotta keep it down in the zone and I gotta work on my breaking stuff off that.

"I was a starter for my whole life, so I know how to pitch. I'm gonna kinda take more of a starter's approach when I'm out there because I don't yet have the ability to blow it by guys [consistently]."

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He appreciated Maddon showing confidence and giving him the ball in the ninth inning of Friday's 8-3 win over the Cardinals.

It was Ramirez's first outing in almost two months and he was stoked to finally get off the sideline and back out on the field to help his team.

"It just sucks, man," Ramirez said. "Anytime a team has the ability to win like it has this year, you want to be a part of that. It's been tough to watch from the sideline. But I'm back now, so I'm just trying to do my part.

"I'm just real hungry and waiting to get my opportunity."

Addison Russell is so over 2017: 'That's last year, don't want to talk about that'

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USA TODAY

Addison Russell is so over 2017: 'That's last year, don't want to talk about that'

MESA, Ariz. — “That’s last year, don’t want to talk about that.”

In other words, Addison Russell is so over 2017.

The Cubs shortstop went through a lot last year. He dealt with injuries that affected his foot and shoulder. He had a well-documented off-the-field issue involving an accusation of domestic abuse, which sparked an investigation by Major League Baseball. And then came the trade speculation.

The hot stove season rarely leaves any player completely out of online trade discussion. But after Theo Epstein admitted there was a possibility the Cubs could trade away one or more young position players to bolster the starting rotation, well, Russell’s name came up.

And he saw it.

“There was a lot of trade talk,” Russell said Saturday. “My initial thoughts were, I hope it doesn’t happen, but wherever I go, I’m going to try to bring what I bring to the table here. It’s a good thing that it doesn’t have to be that way. I’m happy being in a Cubs uniform, I want to be in a Cubs uniform, for sure. But there was some talk out there. If I got traded, then I got traded, but that’s not the case.”

No, it’s not, as the Cubs solved those pitching questions with free-agent spending, bringing in Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood to replace the departed Jake Arrieta and John Lackey. It means Russell, along with oft-discussed names like Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ and Javy Baez, are all still Cubs.

While the outside world might have expected one of those guys to be moved in some sort of blockbuster trade for Chris Archer or some other All-Star arm, the Cubs’ young core remains intact, another reason why they’re as much a favorite to win the World Series as any team out there.

“I’m really not surprised. The core is still here. Who would want to break that up? It’s a beautiful thing,” Russell said. “Javy and I in the middle. Schwarber, sometimes playing catcher but mainly outfield. And then (Kris Bryant) over there in the hot corner, and of course (Anthony) Rizzo at first. You’ve got a Gold Glover in right field (Jason Heyward). It’s really hard to break that up.

“When you do break that down on paper, we’ve got a lineup that could stack up with the best.”

This winter has been about moving on for Russell, who said he’s spent months working to strengthen his foot and shoulder after they limited him to 110 games last season, the fewest he played in his first three big league campaigns.

And so for Russell, the formula for returning to his 2016 levels of offensive aptitude isn’t a difficult one: stay on the field.

“Especially with the injuries, I definitely wanted to showcase some more of my talent last year than I displayed,” Russell said. “So going into this year, it’s mainly just keeping a good mental — just staying level headed. And also staying healthy and producing and being out there on the field.

“Next step for me, really just staying out there on the field. I really want to see what I can do as far as helping the team if I can stay healthy for a full season. I think if I just stay out there on the field, I’m going to produce.”

While the decrease in being on the field meant lower numbers from a “counting” standpoint — the drop from 21 homers in 2016 to 12 last year, the drop from 95 RBIs to 43 can in part be attributed to the lower number of games — certain rate stats looked different, too. His on-base percentage dropped from .321 in 2016 to .304 last year.

Russell also struggled during the postseason, picking up just six hits in 36 plate appearances in series against the Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers. He struck out 13 times in 10 postseason games.

Of course, he wasn’t alone. That World Series hangover was team-wide throughout the first half of the season. And even though the Cubs scored 824 runs during the regular season, the second most in the National League and the fourth most in baseball, plenty of guys had their offensive struggles: Schwarber, Heyward and Ben Zobrist, to name a few.

“You can’t take anything for granted. So whenever you win a World Series or you do something good, you just have to live in the moment,” Russell said. “It was a tough season last year because we were coming off winning the World Series and the World Series hangover and all that. This year, we had a couple months off, a couple extra weeks off, and I think a lot of guys took advantage of that. I know I did. And now that we’re here in spring training, we’re going to get back at it.”

Cubs Talk Podcast: Discussing 5-man unit and where Montgomery fits into Cubs' plans

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Discussing 5-man unit and where Montgomery fits into Cubs' plans

Jon Lester has arrived at Cubs camp, and he’s pleased with the new-look rotation full of potential aces. Kelly Crull and Vinnie Duber discuss the 5-man unit, and where Mike Montgomery fits into the Cubs’ plans.

Plus, Kelly and Vinnie talk Jason Heyward and Kyle Schwarber, along with the continuing free agent stalemate surrounding Jake Arrieta.

Listen to the full Cubs Talk Podcast right here: