Neil Ramirez could be a gamechanger for Cubs bullpen


Neil Ramirez could be a gamechanger for Cubs bullpen

MESA, Ariz. - Imagine what a healthy Neil Ramirez could do for the back end of the Cubs bullpen.

On the eve of the first Cactus League game, the Cubs have quite a few moving parts they need to figure out before the regular season comes. But maybe chief among the roster questions is how the bullpen shakes out.

With the positional versatility of the roster, guys like Javier Baez, Tommy La Stella and Kyle Schwarber can help keep the bench spots to a minimum with their ability to play all over the field, allowing the Cubs to carry an extra arm in the bullpen.

As it stands right now, the only shoo-ins are Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop and Justin Grimm. Travis Wood, Clayton Richard, Adam Warren and Trevor Cahill are competing for rotation spots, but figure to move to the bullpen if they do not beat out incumbent starters Jason Hammel and Kyle Hendricks.

Then there's Rex Brothers, Carl Edwards Jr. and Ramirez among those looking to earn a spot out of camp. Ramirez is also out of minor-league options, which means the Cubs risk losing him if he doesn't make the big-league club or land on the disabled list.

Given his track record, Ramirez could be a dynamic piece to the bullpen if healthy.

"[He just needs to] pitch well," manager Joe Maddon said. "I think he feels better this year physically and he's more comfortable.

"I'm really eager to watch him play. Last year, when he came in, there was obviously something bothering him. He never really got his feet on the ground. I don't think there's anything bothering him right now.

"Look out. He has a chance to show what he did a couple years ago."

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In 2014, Ramirez was a surprise addition to the Cubs bullpen, making his big-league debut in late April and posting a 1.44 ERA and 1.053 WHIP in 50 games. Ramirez also struck out 53 batters in 43.2 innings, picking up three saves and 17 holds.

But last year, shoulder soreness and an abdominal injury cost him almost the entire season. Ramirez made just 19 appearances in 2015 with a 3.21 ERA and 1.286 WHIP in 14 innings.

Ramirez has a history of shoulder injuries dating back to his time in the Texas Rangers system.

Maddon said he saw flashes of the old Ramirez toward the end of 2015, but it wasn't enough for the Cubs to add the 26-year-old right-hander to the playoff roster.

"That was tough. Obviously you wanna be out there," Ramirez said. "Not being out there because of health is always a tough thing, but it was so fun to watch those guys.

"The relationships I've built with those guys, you're always just rooting for them. Even though I wasn't out there, it was fun to watch.

"Being out here in Arizona for most of the year, you could just see how that group grew and grew and grew and it obviously got to where we got to. It just makes me want to be a part of it. I really tried to work hard to be healthy and be out there again this year."

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Ramirez said he hammered the shoulder workouts in the offseason while also trying to add weight to help improve his durability.

Even though he didn't feel right physically all last year, Ramirez still found a silver lining in what was otherwise a lost season.

"Last year was obviously tough with the injury and stuff, but I think I pitched pretty well when I was out there, so I took some positives with that," he said. "Being able to pitch when you don't have your best stuff is going to be a huge thing down the road because there are going to be days where it's like that.

"To go through that was a real positive for me. I'm feeling good about where I'm at."

Ramirez expects to ramp up his activity and workload as the spring progresses and insists he'll be ready when called upon.

The Cubs have plenty of capable arms to throw out in the bullpen, but with standard attrition on any big-league pitching staff, they will likely need to rely on Ramirez at some point in 2016.

"It'd be huge [if Ramirez could return to the bullpen]," Grimm said. "Everybody knows when he's healthy, he can be good.

"I already think we have one of the best bullpens in the league. We're underrated in that aspect. To add him, it would be really huge for this ball club."

Albert Almora's strong connection to Team USA baseball

Albert Almora's strong connection to Team USA baseball

Who was Theo Epstein’s first draft pick with the Cubs?

The answer to that trivia question will always and forever be Albert Almora Jr. picked sixth overall in the 2012 amateur draft.

In some ways, the young outfielder from Florida became the forgotten man in the stable of can’t-miss prospects that Epstein and top lieutenants Jed Hoyer and Jason MacLeod amassed since their arrival over six years ago. While players such as Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ zoomed through the minor leagues on their way to the majors, Almora took a different path – one that included seven different stops over parts of five developmental seasons before he broke into the big leagues during the 2016 season.

But Almora’s road to the majors began years before he was selected by the Cubs, when he began playing for Team USA as a 13-year-old. Over the next several years, Almora played for the Red, White & Blue seven times, his final appearance coming in 2015. The seven appearances are the most in the history of USA Baseball, and Almora recognizes the impact his time with the national squad had on his playing career.

“[It was] one of the best experiences of my life," he said. "Every year I had something special to play with, unbelievable guys, went to crazy places, and out of those six years, five of them came with a gold medal so that was pretty special as well. Also, that helped me in my baseball life, how to experience things and learn from those type of experiences.

“I’m a Cubbie and that’s what’s on my chest right now, but Team USA will always have a special place in my heart.”

While Almora carries those national team experiences with him every day, his main focus coming into the 2018 season is becoming a consistent difference-maker. Almora made only 65 starts during the 2017 campaign, and 63 percent of his at-bats last year came against left-handed pitching, against which he hit a robust .342. That led to a platoon role in a crowded outfield, with Jason Heyward, Kyle Schwarber, Jon Jay, Ian Happ and Ben Zobrist all taking turns on the merry-go-round. But with the departure of Jay, Almora believes his time is near.

“I have the most confidence in myself that I can play every day, but I try not to think about that kind of stuff because it’s out of my control," Almora said. "All I control is like last year what I did; whenever I was given an opportunity, I tried to do my best and help the team win.”

Almora’s ultimate role on the 2018 Cubs remains to be seen, but there’s no question that Theo’s first Cubs pick will earn whatever role he ends up with, and the foundation of Almora’s journey to Clark and Addison was laid many summers ago during his time with Team USA.

Willson Contreras willing to pay the price for mound visits

Willson Contreras willing to pay the price for mound visits

News broke to Willson Contreras that the league will be limiting mound visits this upcoming season, and the Cubs catcher —notorious for his frequent visits to the rubber — is not having it.

“I’ve been reading a lot about this rule, and I don’t really care. If you have to go again and pay the price for my team, I will," he said.

The new rules rolled out Tuesday will limit six visits —any time a manager, coach or player visits the mound — per nine innings. But, communication between a player and a pitcher that does not require them moving from their position does not count as a visit.When a team is out of visits, it's the umpire's discretion to allow an extra trip to the mound.

But despite the new rules, Contreras is willing to do what's best for the team.

“There’s six mound visits, but what if you have a tight game? They cannot say anything about that. If you’re going to fine me about the [seventh] mound visit, I’ll pay the price.”