Cubs option reliever Ramirez to get rest

CHICAGO -- In what appears to be a rather odd move on the face of things, the Chicago Cubs optioned arguably their best reliever, Neil Ramirez, to Iowa and called up Blake Parker.

Manager Rick Renteria said Ramirez was perfectly healthy and was just one of many in a recently overtaxed bullpen that needs some forced time off.

"We're just going to give him a blow, that's all this is," Renteria said. "We've been using everybody extensively. We've had conversations within the organization since the beginning of spring training about a lot of our arms. We use them a lot, and we want to have the opportunity and ability to give them a break during the course of the season."

Renteria suggested it wouldn't only be Ramirez who would be sent down to Iowa for a breather over the season's final two months.

"We're [heading] into the month of August right now, and it's a time when we've really ridden these guys quite a bit, and it's just the appropriate time for us to do this right now," Renteria said. "I'm sure it won't be the last person we do. We have quite a few arms that we've been riding quite a bit. This is a very short breath, hopefully, for him. We're gonna take a step back, regroup, and then he'll be back."

Unless someone goes on the disabled list, Ramirez has to be down for at least 10 days before he can rejoin the major league roster. Renteria said the expectation was that Ramirez would be back with the big league club after the minimum required stay at Triple-A.

Ramirez has 72 hours to report to Iowa, and he wasn't expected to head there right away. Renteria said Ramirez would take a few days off, throw on the side a little, and even when he is used at Iowa, it will be limited.

Ramirez has had shoulder issues in the past but has reportedly been symptom-free since joining the Cubs' organization last August. His 0.96 ERA with 36 strikeouts and only 10 walks in 28 innings of relief with the Cubs is clear proof the demotion wasn't based on his performance.

"We want to make sure that we are proactive in limiting and guarding them a little bit," Renteria said. "Maybe we're being conservative, but that's how we're going to pursue it."

Rather than just keep Ramirez on the roster and have him unavailable, the Cubs clearly felt it was important to keep their bullpen at eight men for Renteria and assure that Ramirez was not an option. In the seven games since the All-Star break, the bullpen has tossed 21 ⅔ innings. The relievers have been especially strained over the last three games, as no starter has thrown more than five innings, and the pen has been used a total of 13 innings and thrown a remarkable 244 pitches in that span.

The departure of Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel, who were not only effective, but consistently going deep into games, certainly hasn't helped the situation. Exacerbating the issue is the fact that veteran starters Edwin Jackson and Travis Wood are failing to go deep into games. Neither has tossed more than six innings in a start this month, and Jackson -- who's ability to eat innings was one of the skills many pointed to when the Cubs signed him -- hasn't lasted seven or more innings in a game since May 17.

Ultimately, the decision to give an arm a breather is hardly surprising, but what's a little odd is that the choice was Ramirez, who has clearly been the team's best bullpen arm since arriving in late April. However, with the Cubs headed for another last-place finish, Ramirez's history of shoulder issues and the fact that he appears to be a big part of the bullpen (at the very least, as there is still the possibility the team may try and stretch him out into a starter down the road) in the future, it makes sense to be careful with him.

The biggest argument one could make against this move is that other arms may have needed a break more desperately than Ramirez, primarily Brian Schlitter and Justin Grimm. Grimm leads the bullpen with 47 appearances (44 ⅓ innings), with Schlitter close behind at 46 (43 ⅔ innings). Both have had some rough outings of late, Schlitter failed to record an out when facing six batters and tossing 16 pitches Thursday, and Grimm had his own tough 35-pitch, three-walk outing the day before.

The bottom line is there are numerous arms in the bullpen that need an extended rest, the order in which they get that rest shouldn't be overanalyzed. And rather than just give the arms in the pen a few days off while keeping them on the roster, the organization has chosen a less-used path of shuttling relievers between Iowa and Chicago. Indeed, it's a curious move, but as Renteria even admitted, it may be conservative, but it's the route they're taking.