Chicago Cubs 2016 NL Central Championship Gear

neil ramirez moundNeil Ramirez (abdominal soreness) started a rehab assignment at Tennessee on Sunday, throwing a scoreless frame and looking decent in the process. Given the timing, with more than a month yet to go in the season, I wondered how aggressively the Cubs would bring him along, and how soon he could return to the big league team. Perhaps Ramirez’s ailment wasn’t serious, but, since he had already come back from a shoulder issue and wasn’t quite looking like himself, it wasn’t entirely clear whether he’d return at all. If he’s rehabbing, though, you’ve got to believe the plan is to get him back this year. How quickly?

Well, clue number one came in the form of his second outing with Tennessee, yesterday, just two days after his previous outing. Ramirez struck out two, walked one, and gave up a hit, but was not permitted to complete his outing because of pitch count (he’s been at 17 and 18 pitches in each outing). The one fastball velocity reading mentioned on the MiLB broadcast was 92mph, which is obviously lower than where Ramirez was last year.

Pitching a day, taking a day, and then pitching again is a normal schedule for a rehabbing reliever, which would suggest Ramirez might not be all that far off from being able to join the Cubs. The Tennessee (and Iowa) season ends next Monday, which could give Ramirez two more appearances (if a day off in between each) there. Might that be enough for him to be ready?

Well, clue number two came in the form of the Cubs’ roster moves yesterday and comments from Theo Epstein. To make room on the 40-man roster for Quintin Berry and Trevor Cahill, the Cubs designated two relievers for assignment, James Russell and Rafael Soriano. In discussing those decisions, Epstein mentioned that part of the reason was that it could become difficult to find low-leverage innings to accommodate all of Soriano, Fernando Rodney, and Ramirez (CSN, ESPN). In other words, the Cubs would rather see Rodney and Ramirez get a chance to work themselves into the mix for more important innings, believing their upside is greater this year than Soriano. That’s probably not a justification for dumping Soriano if the Cubs don’t believe Ramirez will be back soon-ish.

As we saw when Ramirez came back from the shoulder injury, the Cubs recognize that he’s not quite ready to be the high-leverage, shut-down guy he was last year. He was mostly working mop-up, middle-inning types, and it sounds like that’s what Epstein has in mind for Ramirez if he comes back up, too. Given that the Cubs have struggled with some of those innings recently, and given that Jason Motte is still out with his shoulder injury, it’s important to keep in mind that even a lesser version of Ramirez could still help this team down the stretch. From there, maybe he rests up in the offseason, rebuilds the arm strength, and is back to where he was last year in 2016.

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