SAN FRANCISCO -- The Chicago Cubs front office often talks about doing the little things on a day-to-day basis to get “healthier” as an organization. Big or little, that’s what the move to bring in Manny Ramirez is all about. He’ll report to Triple-A Iowa as a player-coach with an emphasis on helping hitters like top prospect Javier Baez.
"Manny is not only one of the best hitters of all time, he is also a dedicated student of hitting and has proven to be a gifted teacher with younger teammates who have worked with him in the batting cage," president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said in a statement on Sunday, when the signing was announced.
If Ramirez’s knowledge makes Baez, and others, just a little bit better, then that’s what matters. The Cubs are in a building mode, and Ramirez is just another brick for the foundation -- albeit as a coach, not a player. With his .312 career batting average and 555 home runs, he might just be able to help others with the hardest thing in sports -- hitting a baseball.
"[Baez] has a tremendous opportunity to pick [Ramirez's] brain, see how he dealt with the expectations, performance anxiety, how he prepared. Not only Javy, but all of our players on that club. What a great opportunity for those guys to learn from him," Cubs scouting director Jason McLeod told ESPNChicago.com.
Where’s the downside? No one knows what Ramirez is like as a true teacher, but knowing the Cubs front office, this signing isn’t actually as big a shocker as you might think. Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer often talk about Ramirez’s hitting exploits -- whether that be on the big stage of the regular season and playoffs, in spring training or even just during batting practice. In fact, his hitting displays are probably not unlike Baez when he’s putting on a show, though Ramirez was a complete hitter, not just a slugger. Hoyer, in particular, often talks about Ramirez in 2004 and 2005 as two of the great seasons he’s ever seen. It sounds like Epstein agrees.
"Behind the scenes, he has always been a tireless worker who is very serious about the craft of hitting," Epstein said.
McLeod told ESPNChicago.com that Ramirez "is a dedicated student of hitting, and his preparation was incredible."
What’s interesting is the Cubs' premeditation in declaring Ramirez only a Triple-A player. It’s probably doubtful he has much left in the tank at nearly 42 years old, but when the Cubs flip some veterans near the trade deadline, they could be staring at some openings in the outfield. And it’s not like there are a bunch of Triple-A players ready to be called up for those positions. If Ramirez can impart some knowledge to minor leaguers, why not to Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro, Junior Lake and Welington Castillo, among others? Maybe the Cubs just want to avoid the circus he would bring. Or maybe if no team wants him as a hitter he’ll be brought up as a coach. Or maybe he just stays in the minors for a half-season to bring along Baez, and moves on.
Ramirez also adds another Latin voice for the younger players to turn to as well. The Cubs' attempts to bring in more Latin American coaches -- starting with their new bilingual manager, Rick Renteria -- has been well documented. It can’t hurt to have another sounding board for their plethora of young Latin American talent, especially one as accomplished as Ramirez.
"I think [Baez] has a lot to garner from Manny in more ways than one: both first-round picks, both Latin players with English as a second language, both getting to the upper levels in quick fashion with a lot of expectations placed on them due to prior performance," McLeod said.
The performance-enhancing drugs issue is really a non-issue. As far as we know, Ramirez is documented using only near the end of his career. He didn’t become a great hitter because of performance-enhancing drugs, and we can assume his answers to any of Baez's questions won’t involve drugs.
"Manny has made real mistakes in the past, but he has owned up to them and moved his life in a positive direction the last couple of years,” Epstein said. “He is in a really great place right now and wants to share the lessons he's learned along the way. We think he deserves another chance and that our young hitters will benefit from it."
Probably the worst anyone can say about Ramirez is he was a bit of a diva when he played. Living and working in Des Moines, Iowa, isn’t exactly the bright lights of Boston or Los Angeles, so his diva days are long over. And the fact that no major league team is seriously interested in him must be a humbling experience -- even at 42.
"The Cubs have some very talented young hitters, and I would love nothing more than to make a positive impact on their careers," Ramirez said in the team statement. "I am passionate about baseball and about hitting, and I have a lot to offer."
That sounds like anything but a diva. The Cubs' rebuilding project is a story in and of itself. Adding Ramirez to the mix just adds another chapter to the narrative.
When the story is complete, how big a role the former slugger has will remain to be seen.