Neil Ramirez Offers Tremendous Upside to the Bullpen, But Will He Make It?

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Neil Ramirez Offers Tremendous Upside to the Bullpen, But Will He Make It?

Chicago Cubs

neil ramirez moundWhile there are plenty of interesting storylines going around Chicago Cubs big league camp in Mesa, there are far fewer legitimate roster battles to keep an eye on than usual.

The final spot on the bench could be a battle, but that decision might ultimately depend on how many pitchers the Cubs decide to carry in the bullpen this season.

When you combine what we saw from Joe Maddon in 2015 with the current composition of the roster (a lot of flexibility, three catchers, etc….) with the desire to protect starting pitchers, it seems more likely than not that the team is capable of (and will be) carrying eight relievers in 2016.

Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop and Justin Grimm are “locks” for the pen, and you can almost guarantee – assuming everyone’s healthy – that Adam Warren, Travis Wood, Trevor Cahill and Clayton Richard will be there, as well.

That’s seven pitchers, with just one theoretical spot remaining. Among the many, many candidates to take the final spot, there’s probably no one you’d rather see win the job than Neil Ramirez.

When healthy, Ramirez, 26, might actually be the best reliever in the group. The problem is, he hasn’t been very healthy. After finishing 2014 with a 1.44 ERA (2.61 FIP), Ramirez had a rough go at it in 2015 due to a series of injuries and related ineffectiveness. Shoulder soreness – which was a problem for Ramirez during his time with the Rangers – came back and cost him most of the season. When all was said and done, he only finished 14 major league innings – with a 3.21 ERA – throughout the course of 2015.

Even when he returned late in the year, Ramirez just didn’t look right.

Consider, in 2014, his average fastball velocity was 94.8 MPH, maxing out at 97.6 MPH. In 2015, however, his average fastball velocity was about a mile and half slower (93.4 MPH) and it maxed out at 95.8 MPH.

But, he did finish out the season healthy and is in big league camp with the Cubs right now having worked at improving shoulder strength and durability this offseason (CSN). Moreover, he tells CSN that he learned a lot last year having to pitch without his best stuff.

We know that, if healthy, Ramirez can be a killer part of the bullpen, but is he going to get the opportunity to show he’s really all the way back? There’s one big problem standing in the way: options.

Neil Ramirez is entering 2016 without any minor league options remaining. That means that if he doesn’t break camp with the big league team, he’ll be subject to waivers, before heading to the minors. The thing is, Ramirez will never clear waivers, because there is certainly more than one (rebuilding) team in baseball willing and capable of stashing him in their big league bullpen, as he works through whatever issues/injuries he’s facing. The upside is worth it. So, for the Cubs and Ramirez, it’s the big league pen or bust with just three weeks to decide.

BUT, I have some encouraging news.

Over the weekend, I had the privilege of attending a couple of Cubs Spring Training games, and was able to catch Neil Ramirez in person. And while the radar gun may not be televised, I was able to see it in person:

So, in his very first official outing of the season, Ramirez was able to hit 92 MPH on his fastball for consecutive pitches, and was in the 90-92 MPH range throughout his inning of work. That inning, by the way, came with just one hit (a blooper that fell in between Heyward and Fowler), no walks and no runs. He looked good. (His subsequent outing yesterday had poor results, but it’s harder to judge without visuals.)

If you’re worried, however, that 92 MPH is a long way from 94.8 MPH, don’t be. It’s extremely common for pitchers to start slow at the beginning of the Spring and ramp up in anticipation of the season. That’s partially to protect from over-exertion and partially because, well, if you haven’t pitched consistently in a few months, you just aren’t going to have all the velocity. Moreover, according to Brett, Ramirez added roughly 2-3 MPH in 2014 from the earliest part of Spring Training to his high points during the season (Brooks confirms, assuming Brett is correct about his early Spring velocity that year). If this is all just part of the process and Ramirez is actually at 91-92 MPH right now, he could be perfectly ready in time for the season.

And if he is, the Cubs will have just added another extremely capable, late-inning, high-leverage reliever to the team. For what it’s worth Steamer (3.42 ERA), Depth Charts (3.18 ERA) and ZiPS (2.94) all project relatively strong success in 2016, albeit over just about 35 total innings.

The rest of March will be in important few weeks for Ramirez, so keep an eye on him and his fastball velocity. If he really can crank it back up to 93-94 MPH by the end of the Spring, he will have a great chance of making the team and creating a significant impact.

Author: Michael Cerami

Michael Cerami covers the Chicago Cubs, Bears, and Bulls at Bleacher Nation. You can find him on Twitter @Michael_Cerami