Scouts and player evaluators have watched Chicago Cubs prospect Neil Ramirez for years. He has had an up-and-down career -- generally dictated by the health of his shoulder. Now, in his seventh season since signing with the Texas Rangers in 2007, Ramirez is pitching out of the bullpen for the Chicago Cubs.
The Rangers selected Ramirez in the supplemental first round as the 44th player taken in the 2007 First-Year Player Draft.
Ramirez is No. 13 on the Cubs' Top 20 Prospects list.
A winner of a number of high school accolades, Ramirez slipped in the Draft largely due to an inconsistent senior season at Kempsville (Va.) High School. He still signed an over-slot $1 million contract just before the signing deadline, passing on an opportunity to attend Georgia Tech.
Ramirez began his career at Class A Short Season Spokane in 2008. While facing mostly older players, he started 13 games and posted a 2.66 ERA over 44 innings, yielding only 25 hits, walking 29 and striking out 52. The walk rate of almost six batters per nine innings was high. But for a 19-year-old rookie on a fairly strict pitch count to protect his valuable arm, Ramirez pitched very well.
Command and control inconsistency were among the issues Ramirez faced in his early Minor League years. He couldn't always find the plate, unable to repeat his release point from pitch to pitch. But there was no denying Ramirez's quicker-than-normal arm and his mix of a high-velocity fastball and good breaking pitches.
In 2011, Ramirez pitched at three classifications, going a combined 5-3 in 25 starts with a 3.12 ERA over 98 innings for Class A Advanced Myrtle Beach (one start), Double-A Frisco (six starts) and Triple-A Round Rock (18 starts).
But that same year, shoulder issues began to creep into the picture, and in 2012, the problem became more acute as Ramirez suffered his worst season as a professional. He remained a starter through last season, but his progress and performance were inconsistent.
In July of last year, the Rangers, in need for starting pitching, sent a group prospects to the Cubs in a trade for starter Matt Garza. Right-handers C.J. Edwards and Justin Grimm, third baseman Mike Olt and a player to be named went to Chicago, and in August, the Cubs acquired Ramirez off waivers as the player to be named.
It's been a fruitful trade for the North Siders, with Ramirez -- pitching out of the Cubs' bullpen -- being the third of the four players in the deal the deal to reach the Majors (Grimm and Olt began the season with the Cubs).
Ramirez had lost some velocity while dealing with his shoulder issues, but he's been throwing his fastball consistently at 95-96 mph this year. He also has a deceptive high-80s slider that can change the eye level of hitter and miss bats. Ramirez doesn't use his curveball and changeup with any type of frequency in his relief role. Basically, he sets up the his out pitch -- the slider -- with his fastball.
Ramirez may have found a home in the bullpen. He still has a high arm slot, but he has been able to harness his command and concentrate on throwing more strikes.
Long-term, Ramirez has the arm and makeup to potentially to be a closer. He is very calm and focused on the mound, he has a combination of a high-velocity fastball and at least one trusted secondary pitch and his command and control continue to improve. Add his ability to miss bats at a high rate, and Ramirez may well become the guy to get the final out in future Cubs victories.
Bernie Pleskoff has served as a professional scout for the Houston Astros and Seattle Mariners. Follow @BerniePleskoff on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.