For all the trade rumors that will trend on Twitter between now and the July 31 deadline, the Cubs could already be on the verge of a big addition.
That’s if Neil Ramirez can stay healthy and regain the form that made him an elite setup guy as a rookie last season.
But the hard-throwing right-hander – who’s been sidelined with shoulder inflammation since April 15 – will be taking another step in the right direction when he begins his rehab assignment on Wednesday with Double-A Tennessee.
“That’s always good to get him out and about,” manager Joe Maddon said before severe thunderstorms washed out Monday night’s game against the Cleveland Indians at Wrigley Field. “He could be a huge part of what we’re doing. He is a huge part of what we’re doing here.”
Ramirez made his big-league debut last season and finished with a 1.44 ERA, 17 holds and 53 strikeouts in 43.2 innings. He faced 177 batters and allowed only two home runs, with opponents hitting .184 against him.
“I was really excited about all of that,” Maddon said. “You looked at the group of relief pitchers in spring training, it was pretty impressive, and then we were knocked back a little bit. But getting him back could really solidify that whole group.”
The Cubs don’t have a set closer anymore, but the bullpen has actually stabilized across the last three-plus weeks, putting up a 1.54 ERA since May 23, which ranks second in the majors during that time.
The Cubs recently signed former All-Star closer Rafael Soriano to a minor-league deal. Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop and Jason Motte have each picked up a save this month. Ramirez should become another weapon out of the bullpen.
The Kansas City Royals became the team-building bullpen narrative during their World Series run last season, but Maddon doesn’t mind having undefined roles in the late innings.
“Unless you really, really have the Royal flush,” Maddon said. “They had a lockdown six, seven, eight, nine. That’s unusual. To do that, you have to have some really resilient arms that are kind of neutral, where they get out both righties and lefties. They don’t know right-handed from left-handed. It’s not easy to find that group of arms.
“For the most part, it’s always made sense to me to do it kind of like we’re doing it right now – unless you have this spectacular group that’s able to do it often and do it against anybody.
“I like what we’re doing right now. If you can match our guys up in better moments for them personally – to their skillset – they’re going to show better.”