For weeks we’ve been wondering whether or not Neil Ramirez would make the roster on Opening Day. But now that we know he did make the team (along with Tommy La Stella and Matt Szczur), we’re wondering if he’ll be any good.
Of course, as you may recall, this was not a concern heading into the 2015 season.
Last spring, Ramirez was coming off a stellar 2014 campaign, where he finished with a 1.44 ERA over 43.2 IP. As a 25-year-old rookie reliever, he was striking out batters roughly 30% of the time and keeping them to just a .184 AVG when they did make contact. With a 95 MPH fastball and a plus slider, Ramirez was one of the most dominant relievers during that entire season.
After weathering some shoulder inflammation and left abdominal soreness, Ramirez managed to pitch just 14 innings in 2015. And although the results were fine – 3.21 ERA, 25% strike out rate – he didn’t look quite right. His fastball velocity was way down, his slider lost its bite, and he was walking batters 10.0% of the time.
However, he continued to rehab over the winter and came into Spring Training 2016 healthy and ready to go. In his first official game – the Cubs home opener at Sloan Park – Ramirez was hitting 91-92 MPH on the radar gun, which was an extremely positive sign for early in the Spring. In fact, it’s not too uncommon for pitchers to start a few miles per hour lower than their typical range, as they ramp up the intensity throughout the month of March (in fact, Ramirez did just that in 2014). So with Ramirez already hitting 91-92 MPH on March 4, good things were expected to come.
Unfortunately, the velocity never fully returned, and it may not ever do so. “I don’t know if the velocity’s going to come all the way back,” manager Joe Maddon said via Patrick Mooney (CSN Chicago). “But the guy’s got a really good slider/breaking ball/slurve.” And maybe that’s okay.Maddon went on to explain that, it’s not as though Ramirez lost his velocity entirely – after all, he is still throwing in the low to mid 90s. It’s just that now, Ramirez might have to adjust his game plan, as he’ll be without a fastball that can miss bats on the strength of its velocity, alone. Plenty of pitchers make this transition at some point in their career, even if most don’t have to until their 30s, or at least late 20s, but with a perfectly usable fastball and excellent secondary stuff, Ramirez can once again return to the pitcher he was in 2014.
And the key, according to Maddon, is to forget about velocity altogether. “So we just talked more about it,” Maddon said of Ramirez, “Let’s just get the hitter out and not worry about the [velocity].” So far, so good, as Ramirez went on to give up no runs runs in five of his seven Cactus League appearances this Spring. And although there were a couple of rough outings mixed in, Ramirez has shown the ability to be a useful part of the bullpen, with or without plus velocity.
His role is yet to be determined, as is the length of time the Cubs will carry eight relievers. For today, though, Ramirez made the team, and can still be extremely useful.