Cubs

Neil Ramirez could be a gamechanger for Cubs bullpen

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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."

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

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."

2019 encore for Jesse Chavez?

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USA TODAY

2019 encore for Jesse Chavez?

On July 15, Brandon Morrow recorded his 22nd save of the season with a scoreless inning in San Diego. It wound up being the last time he pitched in a game for the Cubs in 2018. 

Four days later, during the All-Star break, the Cubs made a move to bolster their bullpen, acquiring Jesse Chavez from the Rangers in exchange for minor league hurler Tyler Thomas. It wasn’t even the biggest trade they’d make with the Rangers that month – a little over a week later they dealt for Cole Hamels. 

Despite pitching nearly half the innings, Chavez was almost as valuable as Hamels.

2018 with Cubs IP fWAR
Jesse Chavez 39.0 1.1
Cole Hamels 76.1 1.5

Chavez made his Cubs debut on July 21; from July 21 through the end of the season, 187 pitchers tossed at least 30 innings. 185 of them had a higher ERA than Chavez, while 184 of them allowed more baserunners per 9 innings.

Best ERA, July 21-end of season

(minimum 30 innings) IP ERA
Blake Treinen 32.1 0.56
Jesse Chavez 39.0 1.15
Blake Snell 61.2 1.17
Trevor Bauer 35.0 1.29
Trevor Williams 71.2 1.38
Robert Stock 36.0 1.50

Fewest baserunners per 9 innings, July 32-end of season

(minimum 30 innings) IP BR/9 IP
Blake Treinen 32.1 5.85
Blake Snell 61.2 7.15
Jesse Chavez 39.0 7.15
Jacob deGrom 93.2 7.49
Scott Oberg 30.2 7.63
Josh Hader 33.1 7.83

But how did Chavez transform into one of Joe Maddon’s best bullpen arms down the stretch?  According to Chavez, his own transformation started on Mother’s Day.

Chavez entered a game in Houston with a 5.48 ERA in a dozen appearances, but pitched three innings with no hits, no walks and four strikeouts. From that point through the end of the season, he posted a 1.70 ERA and 0.892 WHIP. 

Chavez points to a change in arm slot which resulted in better consistency and a slight jump in velocity. A glance at his release point charts show that consistency, and he added roughly one mile an hour to his fastball.

"It's kept me more consistent in the zone," Chavez said. "Things have been sharper, velocity has been a lot sharper. I was huffing and puffing trying to get a 92 (mph fastball) out there and it wasn't coming.

"Next thing you know, I dropped it and it's right there, and I'm like, 'something's wrong here.' But I just took it and ran with it."

Jesse Chavez 2018 four-seam fastball velocity

  Average Max
Prior to May 13 92.6 mph 94.6 mph
May 13 on 93.6 mph 95.7 mph

Can Chavez be valuable in 2019?  The 35-year old reliever posted the best ERA (2.55), WHIP (1.059) and walk rate (4.5% - nearly two percent better than his previous best) in 2018, and he continued to get better as the season went on. 

He’s a former starter who can pitch multiple innings if needed, and that’s a valuable thing - especially for a manager like Joe Maddon, who uses his pitchers in a variety of ways. It’s unlikely he’ll have a second consecutive career year.

But he’ll likely be well worth the price tag; he only made $1 million in 2018, and even with a slight raise he should be very affordable. There’s definitely room in Maddon’s bullpen for a pitcher like Chavez.

There's more change coming for the Cubs this offseason, but in what form?

There's more change coming for the Cubs this offseason, but in what form?

David Kaplan said it best on the most recent CubsTalk Podcast:

"I think it's gonna be the most impactful offseason since Theo and Jed have been here."

He's not wrong, which is saying something given the Cubs have had plenty of impactful offseasons in the tenure of Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer. This is a group that added Joe Maddon and Jon Lester ahead of the 2015 season and then the next winter, added Jason Heyward and surprised everybody by bringing back Dexter Fowler a couple days into 2016 spring training.

Anytime a team sets World Series or bust expectations and instead is going home just one day into the MLB postseason, change is coming. That may be especially true with HOW the Cubs got knocked out — leading the division and boasting the best record in the National League from the All-Star Break all the way through Game 162...yet they didn't even make it to the NLDS.

It's impossible to predict exactly what changes will be coming for the Cubs because as of this writing, three teams still remain and some of the winter's biggest names (Manny Machado, Clayton Kershaw, Craig Kimbrel) have yet to begin their offseason. There's still so much that can change even before free agency opens.

So if you're looking for a bunch of predictions or projections about what is going to happen in the Cubs world this winter, you're in the wrong spot. But here's where change MAY take place over the next couple months:

Coaching staff

We'll start with the area that will probably have a resolution the soonest. Teams typically prefer to have their coaching staff settled as early as possible into the offseason so they can fill out the roster from there. An added bonus is the new coaches can start reaching out to players on the roster earlier in the offseason if they choose to, as well.

With the Cubs coaching staff, there very well may be more shakeup coming this fall even after Chili Davis was let go last week. All we know for certain is Anthony Iapoce will be the team's new hitting coach in 2019 on Joe Maddon's staff. Beyond that, the Cubs have not publicly confirmed that Jim Hickey or any the other coaches will 100 percent be back next spring. 

Lineup

There's a potential the Cubs' 2019 Opening Day lineup will be far different from not only the 2018 Opening Day lineup, but also even the NL Wild-Card lineup. 

Like their fans, the Cubs were unhappy with the way the offense performed in the second half, particularly in three of the final four games (the penultimate regular season contest, Game 163 and the Wild-Card game). 

So much has been made of the Cubs' young core of position players over the last few years, but the evaluation has to change after a bunch of the members of "The Core" took steps back in 2018 (Willson Contreras, Addison Russell, Ian Happ, Albert Almora Jr.). 

Kyle Schwarber enjoyed a bit of a resurgent season as he cut down on strikeouts, walked more and boosted his batting average while improving as a defender, but also saw a dip in power and still hasn't taken that big step forward toward one of the league's most feared run producers.

Kris Bryant also obviously experienced a dip in offensive production, but so much of that can be tied into the left shoulder injury that clearly affected his swing.

After a disappointing end to the season that highlighted the offensive shortcomings, Epstein was blatantly honest about how the evaluation of these players has to evolve:

"It has to be more about production than talent going forward," Epstein said. "And that includes our own assessments. Beyond that, it's also trying to understand why we're not where we should be with some individual players. In other words: If you look back, players who do certain things at 22 and 23 should be progressing into a better, more productive phase of their career at 24, 25 and 26.

"I'm the first one to talk about how development and progress — those aren't linear things all the time. There are a lot of ups and downs. But I think there's a trend where Javy took the big step forward, but there are other guys who went the opposite direction or have been trending the opposite direction a little bit. We have to get to the bottom of that.

"It's our job not just to assemble a talented group, but unearth that talent and have it manifest on the field. Because that's ultimately all that matters. It's an assessment on those two fronts. The talent that we have and who's going to be productive, who's not or where we can find that production. And then also understand the environment and are we doing everything that we can in creating just the right situation to get the most out of these guys."

And therein lies a perfect transition into the next category...

Potential trades

With that aforementioned core of young position players, the only former members of "The Core" that have been traded away are Jorge Soler and Starlin Castro. Year after year of trade rumors and yet as of this writing, guys like Schwarber and Russell and Happ remain in Cubs uniforms.

Will that change this winter? Obviously we don't know for sure, but it seems as likely as at any other point in the last few offseasons.

Reading the tea leaves, it would make sense for the Cubs to deal away at least one of those core members this winter to either bolster the bullpen or restock the farm system. 

For starters, the offensive dip in the second half could portend the need for change. It's very hard for a big group of young hitters to all develop on the same path at the same pace, which means the learning curve can lead to prolonged slumps that occur all at the same time — which we've seen often the last few seasons. 

Epstein was also candid about how the players aren't quite as happy with Maddon's ever-changing lineup as they once were which also means the Cubs probably have to shed some of their depth at some point if they truly want more stable playing time. Almora or Happ can't sit on the bench five times a week without completely inhibiting their development path.

The Cubs also showed exactly how they feel about this group of hitters when they went out and acquired Daniel Murphy in August, stressing the need for his "professional at-bats" in the lineup on a consistent basis at the most important time of the season.

Free agency

The Cubs will have World Series expectations in 2019, so once again, they figure to be big players in free agency. Even if they don't wind up with Bryce Harper or Manny Machado, they will at least kick the tires on the two superstars since they're clearly in the market for improved offense.

But beyond the big fish, the Cubs need to add to the bullpen, bolster the lineup, acquire some more shortstop depth and potentially even add a veteran backup catcher to help give Contreras more regular rest. All those moves could come from the free agent market.

Addison Russell

Will he be back? Even if he is still on the Cubs roster at the start of next year, would he make it through the year? The Cubs may eventually trade him, but why give up on him at a time when Epstein said it's important for the organization to support Russell and his value is also the lowest it's ever been? Strictly thinking in a baseball sense, he could be a perfect midseason trade piece.

Regardless of what happens with Russell, there is some change for the Cubs in that for the first time ever, Javy Baez will enter the official offseason as the clear starter at shortstop next year (at least for the first month). 

Defensive puzzle

Whoever the Cubs add this offseason to help the lineup and subtract from the roster that ended 2018 will still have to fit in the same defensive puzzle somehow. For example, if the Cubs signed Machado, they could slot him in at shortstop a bunch, which opens up Baez to float and play second a bunch or third, which moves Bryant to the outfield, which moves Schwarber to the bench. And on and on with any potential move the Cubs make this winter.

On the other hand, taking guys away from the current defensive puzzle also would have ripples throughout the rest of the roster. For example, if Happ is traded away, that also removes a switch-hitter and a guy with a ton of defensive versatility away from the roster. What does that do to the depth chart in the outfield or at third base? 

Starting Rotation

There might not be any change in terms of additions to the Cubs' rotation ahead of 2019, but that's not to say there won't be any movin' and shakin'.

Assuming the Cubs pick up Cole Hamels' $20 million option — which they should and probably will — that will leave them with Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Hamels, Jose Quintana, Yu Darvish, Tyler Chatwood, Drew Smyly and Mike Montgomery all under contract for next season and all projected to be healthy enough to pitch by the start of spring training. (Before you ask: yes, the Cubs are planning on Smyly as a starter right now; Epstein said as much in September.)

Lester, Hendricks and Quintana are locks for the Opening Day rotation, as is Hamels if that option is picked up. Darvish will surely be in the rotation, too, assuming he's fully over the elbow/triceps issue that limited him to only 40 innings in his first year in Chicago.

So what will the Cubs do with Smyly, Chatwood and Montgomery? Smyly will be on an innings limit in 2019 after missing the last two years due to Tommy John, so it's possible the Cubs opt to switch gears and just throw him in the bullpen to start the year. They may do the same with Montgomery, but will the veteran lefty be OK with that after publicly admitting he wants to start at various points over the last year-plus? Would Chatwood be OK in moving to the bullpen or would the Cubs just move him if he is still having command woes? 

Epstein and Hoyer often remind you can never have too much pitching, but in a way, the Cubs may have too much starting pitching on their roster for 2019 taking up a big part of the team's payroll. Is it possible we'd see a guy get moved this winter as a result? You never know.

40-man roster

This is the most mundane area, as every team makes pretty significant changes on their 40-man roster each offseason — even under the radar. There will always be shakeups with players getting DFA'd to create room for new additions, prospects added to the 40-man roster so as to be protected from the Rule 5 Draft, etc.