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


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.

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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."

Cubs reportedly ‘exceptionally impressed’ by Joe Espada in managerial search

Cubs reportedly ‘exceptionally impressed’ by Joe Espada in managerial search

As the Cubs peruse over their list of managerial candidates, one name reportedly made a strong impression following his interview with the team.

According to NBC Sports Chicago’s David Kaplan, Astros bench coach Joe Espada left the Cubs front office “exceptionally impressed” following his interview on Monday.

Espada, 44, has spent the last two seasons as Astros bench coach following three seasons as Yankees third base coach. He is one of MLB’s more sought after managerial candidates this winter and one of three known external candidates for the Cubs’ opening, along with Joe Girardi and Gabe Kapler.

Former Cubs catcher and current front office assistant David Ross has been the presumed front runner for the Cubs' opening. But based on Kaplan’s report, Espada clearly has given Epstein and Co. something to think about, which makes sense, considering Espada is coming from an innovative Astros organization.

Epstein said at his end-of-season press conference that there’s no timeline for the Cubs’ managerial search. However, MLB prefers teams to not make big announcements during the World Series, which kicks off on Oct. 22. Thus, the Cubs may not make an announcement for little while longer, though this is purely speculation.

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The curious case of Brad Wieck and his unique opportunity with the Cubs


The curious case of Brad Wieck and his unique opportunity with the Cubs

If anybody thought the Cubs' 2019 season was a roller coaster, it was nothing compared to what Brad Wieck has gone through this year.

Wieck — the 6-foot-9 left-handed reliever — went from a cancer diagnosis to a Padres cast-off and wound up finishing the year carving through the heart of the Cardinals order in the eighth inning of a must-win game in late-September for the Cubs.

Wieck began 2019 with a testicular cancer diagnosis in January and underwent surgery shortly after. That left him playing catch-up all spring training, unable to lift, run or throw off a mound for a month after the surgery. He only ended up facing live hitters twice before the regular season started and was never able to recover with the Padres, putting up a 5.71 ERA in 34.2 MLB innings. 

Then the Cubs came calling.

While the rest of Cubdom was understandably occupied on Trade Deadline Day celebrating the Nick Castellanos move, Theo Epstein's front office made a smaller move with the San Diego Padres. And Wieck wasn't even the central focus of that trade, as more of the emphasis was on the departure of Carl Edwards Jr. — a polarizing figure in the Cubs bullpen the last few seasons, including throughout the 2016 World Series run.

Yet Epstein's front office didn't treat Wieck like a throw-in. From Day 1 with the organization, the Cubs handled the southpaw more like a first-round draft pick.

Right after the trade, Wieck was immediately assigned to Triple-A Iowa, where he made a pair of appearances against the Tacoma Rainiers. From there, he was invited to Chicago to meet with the Cubs front office and throw a bullpen off the Wrigley Field mound.

"So I got here and they had a whole presentation of what my current curveball looked like and what they would like the shape of it to look like and so we just started messing around with grip," Wieck said. "I went to a spike curveball grip and we got in the lab and we started throwing it more and we came up with consistent break of what we thought was gonna be a better break than the curveball that I had.

"Just trial and error, honestly. We just looked at Rapsodo stuff and saw what spin efficiency is doing and spin rate and trying to get my curveball spin to replicate the exact opposite of my fastball. That's what our goal was."

That led to a trip to the "Pitch Lab" in Arizona where Wieck worked with Josh Zeid, the Cubs' pitching analyst, to continue to mess around with the new curveball grip and add a new, consistent weapon to his arsenal. 

If the term "spike curveball" sounds familiar, it should. It's become the unofficial pitch of the Cubs (you know, if organizations defined themselves by just one pitch). Rowan Wick — Wieck's former roommate in the Padres system — broke out as a trusted big-league reliever in large part because of the emergence of his spike curve. Craig Kimbrel throws one and also taught the pitch to Yu Darvish, who added it to the plethora of options already at his disposal. 

Wieck's time in Arizona was about getting comfortable with the new pitch and not worrying about facing hitters or pitching in a game. After a couple weeks in the desert, the Cubs threw him back out on the mound in Iowa, where he made four appearances before getting the call to the big leagues when rosters expanded in September. 

Right off the bat, we got a look at that spike curve and there is no doubt it can play at Wrigley Field, especially when the shadows roll in:

Just like that, a new weapon was born and Wieck developed more confidence in that reshaped curveball.

"I like that they're forcing me to throw it more because I've been a fastball-heavy pitcher my whole life," Wieck said. "I trust my fastball with my life. To have a catcher get back there and make you throw it, that's really good."

The Cubs' confidence in Wieck also grew as the month went on. He emerged alongside his buddy Wick as vital pieces of the late-season bullpen while Kimbrel and Brandon Kintzler dealt with injuries. It got to the point where Joe Maddon kept Wieck in to face the Cardinals' big boppers (Paul Goldschmidt and Marcell Ozuna — both right-handed hitters) with a 1-run lead in the eighth inning on that final homestand. We all know how that game ended (Kimbrel served up homers on back-to-back pitches for another gut-wrenching Cubs loss), but Wieck did his job and proved he's far more than just a lefty specialist.

This fall was the first time Wieck had been a part of a playoff push and that outing against the Cardinals was only the 46th MLB appearance of his young career. Moving into 2020, the 28-year-old southpaw looks to be one of only a few arms penciled into the Cubs bullpen. 

The Cubs had their eyes on Wieck for a while before they were able to trade for him and they don't plan on rolling out a big presentation for each acquisition or ask every new arm to start throwing a brand new pitch or completely remake one of their existing pitches. This was a unique situation, but it's one that already paid dividends in a short period of time and could help set up the bullpen for the future. 

It's also another indicator that the "Pitch Lab" can work, as Wieck joins Wick and Kyle Ryan as products of the Cubs' new model they hope to fine-tune and grow. Epstein will hire a director of pitching for the organization this winter and the Cubs are hoping to change the narrative surrounding their shocking lack of pitching development under this front office. 

In Wieck's case, it was a group effort from the Cubs — the front office, research and development department, big-league coaching staff (led by pitching coach Tommy Hottovy), the pitching analytics unit based in Arizona and minor league pitching coordinator Brendan Sagara all teamed up to make it happen for the tall lefty in only a month's time.

It's a model the organization will attempt to duplicate moving forward, beginning this winter.