Brewers strike back by signing Aramis Ramirez

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Brewers strike back by signing Aramis Ramirez

Aramis Ramirez was positioned as the Plan B option for any team that missed out on Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder and still wanted some presence in the middle of their lineup.

Ramirez says whats on his mind. He knows exactly who he is. He wont be bothered by the comparisons to Fielder, or the criticism if he doesnt live up to that. Hes simply a professional hitter.

It was always just business for Ramirez, who got what he wanted in this deal a three-year contract reportedly worth around 36 million money, security and the chance to play for a contender. He cant replace Fielder, but it would be wrong to process Mondays news and completely dismiss the Milwaukee Brewers.

The Brewers are still a team built to win now, even with Fielder chasing a 200 million megadeal in free agency and Ryan Braun facing a potential 50-game suspension for a failed drug test. They have an aggressive owner in Mark Attanasio, and a creative front office that built a 96-game division winner last season. They act bigger than their small market.

The Brewers still have their five starters under club control for 2012: Zack Greinke, Shaun Marcum, Yovani Gallardo, Randy Wolf and Chris Narveson. Each made at least 28 starts and won 11 or more games last season.

The Cubs dont have that kind of rotation, which is one reason why Ramirez, who will turn 34 next season, no longer fit into their plans. The third baseman declined his end of a 16 million option, and an arbitration offer, which means the Cubs will receive draft-pick compensation.

Last week at the winter meetings before the Los Angeles Angels emerged as the mystery team Theo Epstein was asked about the potential landscape of the National League Central without Fielder or Pujols. The answer made it clear that the Cubs first have to get their house in order.

Theres a lot of work to do here, Epstein said. Theres a pretty big gap between where we are now and where we want to go, both at the major-league level and as an organization more broadly.

If we start tracking whether an opposing team might be a 91-win team or a 96-win team, (then) thats probably not the best use of our time. We need to try to build our operation up to a point where we feel pretty good about consistently delivering a team thats going to be a strong playoff contender.

There will always be good teams in this division. I think its an underrated division, whether or not these impact bats stay or go. If they go, those teams are going to have more draft picks and more resources available to them to improve the rest of their club.

If they stay, those guys are tough to get out. Either way, I dont think its going to impact what were trying to do.

The Cubs will try to rebuild without Ramirez, who has six 100-plus RBI seasons on his resume and showed more leadership than you would have thought behind the scenes.

Among Cubs third basemen all-time, only Ron Santo (337) has more home runs than Ramirez (239), who won a Silver Slugger award last season.

There was also the body language, which often came up on sports radio and talk shows and seemed to distance Ramirez from Cubs fans.

To fight that perception, Ramirez spoke extensively with Angels manager Mike Scioscia before the Pujols deal went down, and impressed Hall of Fame executive Pat Gillick when the Philadelphia Phillies made a recent scouting trip to the Dominican Republic.

Ramirez should enjoy hitting at Miller Park, where hes generated 15 homers and 62 RBI in 78 career games. It will be weird for Brewers fans to see Fielder in another uniform, and someone other than Braun playing left field. But this was a move to try to stay in the playoff picture.

Preview: Cubs-Marlins Sunday on CSN

Preview: Cubs-Marlins Sunday on CSN

The Cubs take on the Miami Marlins on Sunday, and you can catch all the action on CSN and streaming live on CSNChicago.com and the NBC Sports App.

Coverage begins with Cubs Pregame Live at 11:30 a.m., followed by first pitch with Len Kasper and Jim Deshaies on the call. Be sure to stick around after the final out to get analysis and player reaction on Cubs Postgame Live.

Starting pitching matchup: Mike Montgomery (1-3, 2.26 ERA) vs. Edinson Volquez (3-8, 4.19 ERA)

Click here for more stats to make sure you’re ready for the action.

— Channel finder: Make sure you know where to watch.

— Latest on the Cubs: All of the most recent news and notes.

Jon Lester: It’s go time for Cubs

Jon Lester: It’s go time for Cubs

MIAMI – Jon Lester dropped his head and wiped the sweat from his face. The Cubs ace didn’t jerk his neck and twist his body, hoping the swing and the sound somehow fooled him. The slow turnaround revealed the obvious – the 75-mph curveball out of his left hand flew over the left-field wall and nearly into the Clevelander bar billed as an adult playground. 

Lester gripped the next ball, stared out into the visual noise at Marlins Park and went to work late Saturday afternoon after J.T. Realmuto’s two-out, three-run homer in the first inning. This is the bulldog determination and tunnel vision that’s been the antidote to the big-market pressures at Fenway Park and Wrigley Field and made Lester such a big-game pitcher.

“You really just have to lock it down,” Lester said after doing just that in a 5-3 win. “You have to try to figure out a way to pitch innings. That was one thing I learned at an early age in Boston with ‘Schill’ (Curt Schilling) and Josh (Beckett). It doesn’t matter. Now we start over. You have to take that mindset of ‘It’s back to zero’ and not keep looking at the scoreboard.”

From that Realmuto moment, Lester retired the next 13 hitters he faced, 15 of the next 16 and 18 of his last 20 at a time when the Cubs needed that performance to buy time for their young hitters, weather a series of injuries and survive a brutal schedule.

Lester believed enough in the coming waves of talent to sign with a last-place team after the 2014 season, and got rewarded with his third World Series ring, continually impressed with this group’s poise and maturity.

The day after getting shut out for the sixth time this season, Addison Russell, Ian Happ, Javier Baez and Albert Almora Jr. – four 24-and-under players – combined to go 7-for-15 with five RBI and four runs scored.

“It’s a test for everybody,” Lester said. “These guys are kind of getting broken in early. They’re going to figure it out and we’re going to go. Now it seems like our guys are really feeling comfortable at the plate. We’re having good at-bats, normal at-bats.

“The results will come. This is, obviously, a results-driven industry. But the plans – as far as on the mound and in the batter’s box – just look a lot smoother right now, a lot cleaner and hopefully we can just keep playing good baseball.”

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The Cubs are 38-36, a half-game behind the first-place Milwaukee Brewers and in position to win three consecutive series for the first time since April. Whether or not Lester (5-4, 3.83 ERA) returns to Little Havana for the All-Star Game, he is the bellwether for this rotation.  

“Jonny’s just got this thing going on right now,” manager Joe Maddon said. “He knows where the ball is going and he gets the high-number velocity when he wants to. He’s not just pitching at 92, 93, 94 (mph). It’s in his back pocket when he needs it. And he gets it with command when he wants it.

“As well as I’ve seen him pitch – I know he had a great run last year also – from a stuff perspective, command perspective, it’s as good as he can pitch.”

This $155 million investment will at some point become a sunk cost. The Cubs understand the history of nine-figure contracts for pitchers and how desperately they need reinforcements. But almost 100 innings into this title defense, Lester feels like he’s just getting started. 

“I feel better now than I did in April and May, for sure,” Lester said. “I think bigger bodies just take a while sometimes. Some years are different than others. Some years you come out like gangbusters and you’re ready to go and the body feels fine. And other years it takes a while to get into that rhythm of pitching every five days again. This was one of those years.”