From the Pages of Vine Line: The Cubs believe Rick Renteria is poised for success
When the Cubs hired Rick Renteria as their 53rd manager in franchise history last November, much was made of his fluency in both Spanish and English.
While bilingual talents are an asset to an organization rich in Latin-American prospects, Renteria’s communication skills transcend language. President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein and Executive Vice President and General Manager Jed Hoyer knew that when they tapped the now-52-year-old baseball lifer to replace ousted skipper Dale Sveum.
“The No. 1 challenge we gave him was to provide a good atmosphere for the young players to develop and drive to the big league level,” Epstein said. “That is easier said than done, and he has done a fantastic job at it.”
Under Renteria, shortstop Starlin Castro and first baseman Anthony Rizzo have both rebounded from 2013 seasons in which the former hit .245 and the latter .233. Their regression from strong 2012 performances distressed management, especially considering the Cubs had committed $100 million to making them franchise cornerstones.
“My goal was to create a positive atmosphere,” Renteria said of his first season as a big league manager. “And we wanted the message and the way we dealt with these young men to be consistent.”
Reflecting on 2013, management accepted blame for trying to make Castro a more patient hitter. Still, after evaluating Sveum for two seasons, Epstein and Hoyer acknowledged they might have missed the mark with the hire.
The former manager batted a slumping Castro everywhere in the lineup in 2013, excluding cleanup. The relationship hit a wall on Aug. 20 with Castro’s move to the No. 8 slot. He was switched to leadoff the next day, reportedly following conversations among Castro, his agent and the front office.
In 2014, Renteria promised Castro would be a key to the offense. The manager batted the shortstop third in the first two games of the season and second in the next three. Then Renteria dropped him to sixth.
“Ricky told me he needed production in the middle of the lineup and that I was his best chance,” said Castro, who collected five RBI—including his first career two-homer game—in his initial two games batting sixth.
On April 25, Renteria made his most significant move with Castro, shifting him from the No. 5 spot to cleanup, behind Rizzo. Both players went on to make the All-Star team.
“I was hopeful coming into this job that in time we would build trust,” Renteria said. “We wanted to motivate and encourage our players while still holding them accountable. Teaching was the next step.”
After Renteria lost two-fifths of his starting rotation (Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel) in a July 4 trade with Oakland, the Cubs dropped 11 of their next 13 games. But they played above .500 in August behind a rebuilt lineup. Jake Arrieta and rookie Kyle Hendricks lifted the rotation, while position prospects Arismendy Alcantara, Javier Baez and Jorge Soler freshened the roster.
“Ricky has done a very good job with a roster that has been young and constantly in flux,” Hoyer said. “He and his staff have created an environment that allows young players to develop while still competing every night. This is not easy. Our team has continued to play hard and well through the most mentally challenging parts of the season.”
Though Renteria has a reputation as being easygoing and even-keeled, he’s definitely not a softy. Epstein noted Renteria has been supportive without being enabling.
“When guys make mistakes, he holds them accountable, but he still stays positive by asking them to go out and do it right the next time,” Epstein said.
Renteria, a big league utility player from 1986-94 and a San Diego Padres coach for six seasons before the Cubs came calling, accepts praise cautiously.
“Time will tell what we’ve accomplished as a team,” he said. “We just hoped, with our help, the core of players would create something they wanted to be part of in the culture here.”
Like any rookie manager, Renteria has experienced bumps in the road, including the struggles of Junior Lake and Mike Olt. The skipper sought proper matchups for the two right-handed hitters, but ultimately both were returned to the minors prior to late-season call-ups.
Renteria also experienced the challenge of developing, yet protecting, young arms—all while trying to win games. His rugged bullpen use, especially early on, had the Cubs carrying eight relievers for most of the second half—limiting in-game maneuvers involving position players.
“He’s been everything we hoped for, especially with the priorities we gave him,” Epstein said. “X’s and O’s and in-game stuff, he’s growing into that. It’s kind of nice he can grow with this team.”
Amidst the praise, the first-year big league manager is still hard on himself.
“I’m not one who strays from my own accountability if things don’t work out,” Renteria said. “I’m comfortable in my own skin and hope that translates to our players.”
A longtime scout in another organization agrees the Cubs have found the right manager.
“[He’s] a tremendous baseball man,” the scout said. “He’s always positive and low-key. Yet, one on one, he’ll get his point across and won’t back down when it comes to players hustling or making repeated mistakes. He’s fair, smart and tough.”
And those qualities project well in any language.
—By Bruce Levine and Joel Bierig