How Joe Maddon sees Neil Ramirez in Cubs bullpen after velocity drop


How Joe Maddon sees Neil Ramirez in Cubs bullpen after velocity drop

MESA, Ariz. – The Cubs don’t know what they’re going to get in Neil Ramirez, the lights-out setup guy from 2014 or the one who struggled to stay healthy during last year’s playoff run.

But the Cubs still see enough upside potential to put Ramirez on their Opening Day roster, hoping he can approximate that dominant rookie season (1.44 ERA) and avoid the injuries (right shoulder inflammation, left abdominal soreness) that limited him to only 14 big-league innings last year.

“I don’t know if the velocity’s going to come all the way back,” manager Joe Maddon admitted on Tuesday at the Sloan Park complex after Ramirez found out he made the team. “But the guy’s got a really good slider/breaking ball/slurve, whatever you want to call it.

“Even though his velocity might not be what it had been, it’s still high velocity. It’s not like it’s 88, 89, 87 (mph). He’s into the low-to-mid 90s on occasion, so there’s plenty of juice there.

“Now throw it where you want to – and then play that slider off of it.”

[MORE: Jake Arrieta ready to put his game face on]

The Ramirez-is-out-of-minor-league-options angle framed many of the questions as the Cubs began to finalize their 25-man roster. Maddon hadn’t seen the electricity in 2014, when Ramirez made 50 appearances for a last-place team and finished with 53 strikeouts in 43-plus innings.

“(I) heard about all the high numbers he put up on the gun,” Maddon said. “And then all of a sudden it wasn’t there last year. I think his emphasis was on pitching to velocity as opposed to getting hitters out.

“So we just talked more about: ‘Let’s just get the hitter out and not worry about the number.’ And it’s worked out pretty well.”

Ramirez put up a scoreless inning in five of his seven Cactus League appearances and will have to figure out how to do more with less. Maddon – who might be the best in the game at pushing bullpen buttons – will be here to help.

“Sometimes guys like that get caught in the speed-gun trap,” Maddon said. “It’s in every ballpark. You turn around – it’s there. People bring it to your attention constantly. Of course, you want to throw harder.

“But he throws hard enough. Just command what he throws and pop that slider – he’s going to be just fine.”

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


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


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: