Why the Cubs sent out reliever Neil Ramirez

SAN FRANCISCO -- Even though right fielder Jason Heyward's injury looks to be minor, it had far-reaching implications for the Chicago Cubs. Let’s examine the importance of the moves the Cubs made Saturday with Heyward due to sit out the next few games.

Neil Ramirez designated for assignment

The Cubs were always likely to cut back and carry 12 pitchers at some point, and this gave them the opportunity. Several times in recent games, manager Joe Maddon has run out of players on his bench, and with his starting staff performing so well, keeping eight relievers was a luxury that ran its course.

“We always thought that that could happen,” Maddon said of trimming down the arms. “It’s a conversation we have since spring training.”

Some might wonder why the Cubs continue to keep three catchers, or perhaps why another pitcher such as left-hander Clayton Richard survived the cut.

First, one must understand the value the Cubs believe veteran catcher Tim Federowicz brings to the table. Miguel Montero has already experienced an injury and David Ross is 39 years old. If one of those veteran catchers goes down for an extended period, the Cubs are simply not ready to bring up hot prospect Willson Contreras. It has nothing to do with his offense, which has been stellar at Triple-A. And it probably doesn’t have anything to do with his receiving skills. But catchers are so much more than swinging a bat and catching a baseball. Do you really think a rookie is ready to step in and catch one of the best pitching staffs in baseball? Is he ready, midseason, to tell John Lackey what he needs to hear?

Obviously the Cubs front office doesn’t think so, or Federowicz would be gone. He can’t be sent back to the minors without clearing waivers, and the Cubs will buy all the time they can until they are forced to make a decision with him. As for Richard, the fact that he’s a lefty probably bought him some time as well. Even though Ramirez had a breakout season in 2014, Maddon wasn’t around to see it, and while the 26-year-old righty was working his way back into a competitive form, the Cubs don’t have the luxury to wait. Right or wrong, Ramirez had only eight appearances this season and the Cubs deemed Federowicz more valuable. It’s hard to argue considering the importance of catching and the redundancy the Cubs possess from the right side in the bullpen.

“Neil has had a really wonderful young career with the Cubs,” Maddon said. “It’s hard to do that. Hopefully he’ll have a better opportunity to play somewhere else.”

This isn’t to say the Cubs made the right decision. They might not need Federowicz when it’s all said and done, and Ramirez could find that 2014 form, but there’s no way to know that right now. The key is understanding why they did it. They see more value in the third catcher than most fans might.

Matt Szczur activated

Szczur was playing well before suffering a hamstring injury, and with Heyward unavailable for a few days, Szczur's return from the disabled list seemed like a natural move. When Heyward returns, the Cubs will have plenty of versatility; they now have 13 position players, including Kris Bryant, Ben Zobrist and Javier Baez, who all can play the outfield. That more than makes up for carrying three catchers. The Cubs probably won’t go the next four months with that roster makeup, but for now, it shouldn’t be a major issue.