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Bullpen (not closer) by committee

2/21/2015

MESA, Ariz. -- Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon got one thing out of the way after morning workouts Saturday at spring training: Hector Rondon will be his closer.

That’s hardly a surprise, as Rondon saved 29 of 33 games the past season, while his best competition for the job -- newcomer Jason Motte -- is still working his way back from Tommy John surgery.

As much as Maddon likes to mix and match, he’s not going to mess with a good thing in the ninth inning. With innings six through eight, however, it's a different story.

“You saw what Kansas City did last year,” Maddon pointed out. “You did not want a deficit in the sixth inning. They could cover six through nine. That’s ridiculous.”

It’s not just the Royals who are relying on middle men as much as the closer; that has become the norm in baseball. Starters are coming out earlier in games, while managers are making multiple pitching changes to get through those late innings.

The Cubs' bullpen “came together after June 1 last year,” as pitching coach Chris Bosio said Saturday. Now, guys such as Neil Ramirez want to take the next step.

“We know that is an important piece, nowadays,” Ramirez said. “They’re relying on those late guys more. We take pride in that.”

Ramirez came on strong after joining the team through a 2013 trade with the Texas Rangers. There are more than 200 relievers in the league, and Ramirez ranked in the top 40 in all meaningful categories last year, including eighth in relievers’ ERA, with a sparkling 1.44. He might not be known outside Chicago, but that doesn’t mean he’s not extremely important.

“I told those guys [in the front office], 'I don’t want to have to be a guy that’s babied,'” Ramirez said. “Every time my name is called, I want to be ready to go.”

That could be the difference between last year and this one, in terms of the bullpen. The Cubs were careful with all their young arms, especially Ramirez. It’s why they employed 13 pitchers instead of the normal 12 and why Ramirez was sent to the minors for a while in late July to rest his arm. The Cubs were willing to sacrifice games by being a bench player short in order for then-manager Rick Renteria to not overuse his relief staff.

Now, the Cubs are all about winning, and Ramirez has some of the nastiest stuff on the team. His fastball and slider are great complements to each other.

“I’m more concerned with just getting the job done,” Ramirez said. “If my stuff is nasty, it is; if not, that’s OK, as long as we get it done. The atmosphere we’ve built is the next guy passes it to the next guy.”

Ramirez, Justin Grimm, Pedro Strop and Rondon have developed that internal competition, in which one guy wants to show the others how to shut the door on the opposition. One key is their ability to get both right-handers and left-handers out. The Cubs don’t have a proven lefty specialist on the team right now, so they might turn to what they have from the right side.

“Today’s game presents a lot of reverse split pitchers,” Maddon said. “Or neutral guys. Neutral guys are the best. Guys that can get out righties and lefties consistently.”

Ramirez might be that guy. His batting average against left-handers last year was .200. Against righties, it was just .173. The Cubs will find a lefty -- they have several in camp with some experience -- but they won’t be afraid to use their right-handers. Maddon and Bosio like that flexibility and won’t mind being second-guessed.

“We weren’t afraid to throw any of those guys in that spot,” Bosio said.

So who comes in to face Joey Votto with the game on the line in the seventh or eighth inning? It’s yet to be determined, but it won’t necessarily be a left-hander. Ramirez thinks he can be that guy, especially having a full camp knowing his job.

“Knowing that it’s a role I’m going to be in, I’m working on it,” Ramirez said. “Using that slider in all situations."

The Cubs have a manager who wants flexibility in his bullpen, and they have a group of relievers who have proved they have that kind of ability.

“I’m really into the reverse split guys,” Maddon said. “Those guys can be really dangerous.”

Can it all come together for a winning season? They’ll be put to the test soon enough.