Renteria managing expectations in first year
New Cubs skipper expects team to improve in 2014 but will be patient
MESA, Ariz. -- After losing 197 games over the last two seasons, the Cubs wanted a new voice. Rick Renteria is now at the helm, and he's quick to admit that he's not reinventing the wheel in his first year as manager. What makes him different?
"Ricky has that quality of not only a great baseball mind, but he has passion, a passion for people," Padres manager Bud Black said of his former bench coach. "He's got a great sense of right and wrong, and he can be compassionate on one end and understand where firmness comes in on the other end. He's got high integrity, and I think players appreciate that."
If it sounds like the same characteristics a father should have, then you've got Renteria perfectly pegged. He has four children, and he opens this spring with 60-plus in his new family, the Cubs.
Chicago isn't projected to challenge for the top of the National League Central, which had three teams in the playoffs last season. Renteria, 52, knows that, and he still took the job, his first as a big league skipper. He says the same things every manager does heading into Spring Training -- they'll emphasize fundamentals, play the game right. Everything they do has a purpose in the goal to win as many games as they can.
"We know people look at us and think there's no chance anything can happen," Renteria said. "That's on everybody else, that's not on us."
Renteria will draw on what he's learned from Black, Jim Leyland, Dick Williams, Rene Lachemann and his Minor League manager, Johnny Lipon, who Renteria said was the most positive person he's ever played for. Black said one of Renteria's strengths is his ability to communicate with the players.
"I learned this from my managers, the importance of empowering your coaches and letting them do their thing and whatever they felt needed to be done in the context of our team," Black said. "I had a great deal of trust with Ricky to do what he needed to do, and there were a lot of times he'd come by and say, 'Hey, I'll take care of this, is that OK?' and I'd say 'Yeah.' He would come by and say, 'I needed to talk to so and so, and I did. Is that OK?'
"We were together for a length of time, so the trust was there," Black said. "My first year, he was our Triple-A manager and he was in big league camp, and we communicated. The next year, he came on the [big league] staff. We were together six seasons, and as each year went on, more trust was built. He's a guy who was extremely loyal to the Padres and to our players."
In the short time Cubs catcher Welington Castillo has been around his new manager, he's laughed a lot.
"He's really funny," Castillo said. "He's a guy who supports the players. I think that's all you need for a skipper and a coaching staff. They don't have to be good to you -- if they have to be a little aggressive to you, they have to be, because that's this kind of game. They're going to do something to wake you up. So far, he's been really good, like, 'Hey, I've got your back, enjoy the game, and play hard.'"
Is Renteria funny like "funny ha-ha" or "funny strange?"
"He supports you and he makes you comfortable," Castillo said, trying to explain. "When you go to the field, you play 100 percent. Have fun, that's all he said. Have fun and play hard, that's it."
Renteria doesn't ask the players to do anything he wouldn't do, and his resume is so extensive that there isn't anything he hasn't done. He was a first-round Draft pick in 1980 and didn't make his Major League debut until September '86 with the Pirates. Renteria spent 14 seasons in the Minor Leagues, including three in Mexico. He's been traded once, released three times. Renteria overcame a career-threatening broken jaw suffered in batting practice on the first day of the 1990 season, returned and was sidelined again when he was spiked in the eye. He nearly retired, but with the support of his family and faith, stuck with it and won a spot on the Marlins' big league roster out of Spring Training a year after playing for the Jalisco Charros, and became successful as a utility player.
Lachemann once quipped: "I'd like to see a movie about [Renteria's life]. I'd pay to go."
Screenwriters should wait to see if Renteria creates the perfect ending with the Cubs, who signed him to a three-year contract in hopes of getting the team to the playoffs eventually. The 2014 roster may not get preseason prognosticators excited, but excitement is building for 2016, when Javier Baez, Albert Almora, Kris Bryant and Jorge Soler could be in the big leagues. Renteria knows the pressures they're dealing with.
"That was the question that was first asked of me when I went to rookie ball, 'When do you expect to make it to the big leagues?'" Renteria said. "I didn't have that crystal ball, and even if I did, I would've missed the mark."
Renteria is one of the first at the Cubs complex, arriving before 5 a.m. so he can get his daily exercise routine done. It's part of his recovery from right hip replacement surgery in October.
His ability to speak Spanish has impressed the Latin players, but Renteria is trying to learn Japanese, too, and has been testing a new phrase each day with the media.
How much of an influence can a manager have?
"There's only so much he can do," Cubs pitcher Travis Wood said. "You can be positive and behind us as much as possible, but at the end of the day, it's on [the players] to take the initiative to grind out workouts and get better every single day we're out here."
But it's the manager who's in the spotlight and the one who has to answer to the media.
"He's a great motivator and he's going to be behind us 100 percent but at the end of the day, it's up to us," Wood said. "He's a very positive, upbeat guy and I think that's what we need here."
Does that mean it wasn't "upbeat" the last two seasons under Dale Sveum?
"It was [upbeat]," Wood said. "Dale was a very good manager and I liked him a lot, and it's unfortunate he had to leave, but Rick just brings a different aspect. A new face, a new guy always brings something different to the table, so we'll just see how it unfolds."
Losing at least two starting pitchers at the Trade Deadline as well as seeing other veterans dealt, then finishing fifth the last two seasons contributed to the mood in the Cubs' clubhouse as well.
"With two years of losing, it leaves a bad taste in everybody's mouth," Wood said. "We've got some guys trying to prove themselves again and some guys trying to keep proving themselves. I think it's going to be an exciting year."
Renteria will start one-on-one meetings with the players Tuesday. His first full workout day will be Wednesday when camp kicks up another notch.
"We really trust Ricky to connect with the players as human beings, to be on their side, to be consistent, to hold them to high standards and ultimately to get the most out of them," Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said. "He's a great baseball guy, a great communicator. He's fully invested in what we're doing here.
"He believes in young players, he believes he can win with young players," Epstein said. "We believe he's the right guy to create an environment that we need at the big league level to establish a winning culture and allow our young players to continue to develop and become championship players."
Any last-minute tips from Black?
"The only advice I've offered to Ricky is, 'You know this game, you've been around it your whole life -- be yourself,'" Black said. "'What you bring as a person is what is going to carry you to success in this game.'"
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.