By Bruce Levine–
(CBS) — The Cubs’ starting rotation has been good for most of the 2014 campaign. After trading Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel in early July, it appeared Chicago was headed toward another 100-loss season. That hasn’t been the case, as Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks have led a solid staff over the past six weeks.
Everyone not named Edwin Jackson seems to have made strides as major league pitchers. With numerous position players on their way to big league careers, finding quality starters for the rotation will be the key for Chicago’s quest to become a playoff-caliber team over the next few seasons.
The big arm of Neil Ramirez will be scrutinized by the team’s front office over the waning days of the 2014 campaign. The question is whether the 25-year-old right-hander is a future closer or a missing cog in the evolving rotation. A case can be made for either role. Ramirez was a starting pitcher in the Texas organization before coming in a huge deal that sent Matt Garza to the Rangers in July 2013. Ramirez was the player to be named later, claimed off of waivers on Aug. 23, 2013.
After a thorough look at his record and late-inning struggles as a starter, Ramirez was sent to the bullpen this spring. Many believe he has the stuff (four quality pitches) and make-up to be the top-of-the-rotation pitcher that he was on track to be in Texas.
“We still have to see how Neil ends the season,” Cubs manager Rickey Renteria said in response to a question about the future role of his pitcher. “All of these guys, we have been closely monitoring in terms of their health. These are factors to make sure everybody is good. Does he have starter stuff? Probably. Does he have potential closer like stuff? Probably. Let me put it this way: It’s a great problem to have.”
After spending some time in July on the disabled list with shoulder fatigue, Ramirez has come back strong in his set-up man roles. As with most young pitchers, he has no real interest in telling his coaches if he thinks starting or relieving is his forte.
“I am in the pen role now, and that has been great,” Ramirez said. “I like some aspects of both roles. I love the challenge of getting guys out to hold the lead or grinding out my own seven innings. It is their call. I will be fine either way.”
The easy way is to take the Ramirez 98-mph fastball and let him close. The harder part of the equation sends him back to the drawing board, building arm strength and innings as a rotation man.
“I have four pitches,” he said. “Since going to the bullpen, I have not used my change-up. It was really a good pitch for me last year as a starter. We have just used the harder stuff in those late-inning situations. If I come back as a starter, I will bring back the change for sure.”
Ramirez has been dominant in the bullpen, with a 1.17 ERA, 0.98 WHIP and 39 strikeouts in 30 2/3 innings innings. National League hitters are batting a paltry .174 against the power pitcher.
“Starting in the bullpen for some teams is the way they help young guys get acclimated to the major leagues,” Ramirez said. “Our pitching coach (Chris Bosio) has taught me the urgency to make a good pitch. I look back at my starting career and see where I took some pitches off. That will never happen again after this awakening.”
Bruce Levine covers the Cubs and White Sox for 670 The Score and CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @MLBBruceLevine.