SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Neil Ramirez was a ‘player to be named later’ who turned into the best arm in the Chicago Cubs’ bullpen in 2014. He was a flame-thrower with impressive off-speed stuff that made him a fit for high-leverage innings. Then he was hurt, turning from relief ace to general manager — at least in his head — trying to figure out how he’d rise up the depth chart once again. He was waived by the Cubs, then the Milwaukee Brewers. Pitching for the lowly Minnesota Twins, he surrendered 10 runs in 14.2 innings.
That’s who Neil Ramirez was. Who is he going to be?
To start, hopefully a reliever for the San Francisco Giants.
Ramirez is in Scottsdale trying to compete for a spot in a Giants bullpen that needs plenty of help. Yes, Mark Melancon was brought in, but the team will need more than one arm to fix the mess it was last season.
So far, so good.
“I’m happy with it, I feel good,” Ramirez said of his spring training. “I feel healthy which is huge. I’ve been happy with how I’m commanding my pitches so far. Everything seems to be working for this time of the year.”
In six innings, Ramirez has nine strikeouts while allowing just one walk. That’s the first positive sign that he’s closer to what he once was. In 24 innings in the majors last season, he walked 18 batters. In 43.2 innings in 2014 he walked 17.
Missing is 2015, a season in which shoulder issues limited him to 14 innings. He missed much of the season and lost the velocity that made his fastball dominant and his off-speed even harder to hit.
He wasn’t the same in 2016, with radar guns showing more 90 than 97. Worse yet, the control was gone and so was his spot on the Cubs.
“It was tough,” he said. “I think after the first designation I was kind of still thinking about that a little bit and kind of carrying it over a little bit into the year instead of just focusing on making pitches and getting guys out. I kind of got caught up in that a little bit.
“After going through it, though, it’s a good learning experience. Kind of gets you back on track and focused on what you can and don’t worry about that other stuff.”
Back at Triple-A, Ramirez gave himself a pep talk of sorts.
“When I got sent down to Triple-A, I was like ‘well you’re back here now, man. Might as well just let it go and get back to competing.’ You start playing GM a little bit and thinking about those kinds of things instead of worrying about getting guys out,” he said. “When I got sent back to Triple-A, I just told myself to do everything I can to get back.”
What about the velocity? He’s still not throwing 97, but coming up as a starter helps.
“Adjusting and using four pitches is nothing new,” he said. “I think there’s definitely things you can’t get away with that you could before, but I still think my fastball has good life on it. Slider is still there, I’m using the curveball a lot more this spring, I even have the changeup I want to start throwing more, too.”
Ramirez was on track to be a closer one day, or the designated “high-leverage guy”, and anyone who watched him in 2014 knows that’s not hyperbole. Will be be that again? It remains to be seen. Ramirez won’t worry about getting back there, because the last time he did he overthought his way to the waiver wire.
Even if he’s not, he’s closer than he was.
“I feel healthy, which was a huge thing in 2014,” he said. “I was healthy, just letting it go and wasn’t worrying about anything other than that. I think I’m there right now, just letting it go. I’m not gonna worry about velocity or anything like that, I’m just gonna focus on making pitches. I have four pitches, and I think I can use all those pitches out of the bullpen. If the velo ends up coming back around then that’s awesome.”