Hector Rondon returns to the 25-man roster. (Photo by Stephen Green)
The Cubs made a series of transactions Tuesday, activating right-handed reliever Hector Rondon from the paternity list, and calling up catcher Eli Whiteside from Triple-A Iowa. In other moves, reliever Jose Veras has been designated for assignment, and catcher Welington Castillo has been placed on the DL with left rib cage inflammation.
The 26-year-old Rondon has an 0-1 record with six saves, 25 strikeouts and a 1.59 ERA over 22.2 innings. Opposing hitters are batting .193 against the right-hander, and his .493 OPS against ranks 10th among NL relievers.
Whiteside, 34, signed with the Cubs prior to the season and is set to make his Cubs debut. He’s currently hitting .171 with four doubles, three homers and 13 RBI in Triple-A Iowa. He has played all or part of five big league seasons and won World Series rings with the Giants in 2010 and 2012. He’s a career .215 hitter in the majors.
In 13.1 innings, Veras went 0-1 with a 8.10 ERA for the Cubs.
Castillo is currently hitting .242 with five homers.
Neil Ramirez got his first call-up to the major leagues Thursday. (Photo by Stephen Green)
The Cubs recalled right-handed pitcher Neil Ramirez and left-handed pitcher Zac Rosscup from Triple-A Iowa Thursday. Outfielder Justin Ruggiano has been placed on the 15-day DL with a left hamstring strain, and right-handed reliever Blake Parker was optioned to Triple-A. According to manager Rick Renteria, the team will go with a 13-man bullpen for the next few series.
This is the 24-year-old Ramirez’s his first call-up to the majors, after going 36-35 with a 4.40 ERA in 140 minor league appearances over the last seven seasons. He was acquired by the Cubs as the player-to-be-named later in a deal that sent starter Matt Garza to the Rangers. Ramirez spent most of Spring Training in major league camp, pitching 7.2 scoreless innings. In seven frames at Iowa this season, he had a 7.71 ERA. Between Double-A Frisco and Double-A Tennessee last year, he went 9-3 with a 3.68 ERA in 22 starts.
“It’s a dream come true. Everybody says that, but when you get that call, it’s definitely that feeling that you’ve been working for something so long, and it’s finally here,” Ramirez said. “I’m just excited to be here and give the team a chance to win.”
Rosscup, 25, joins the Cubs for the second time this season. He previously came up as the 26th man during the doubleheader against the Yankees on April 16. He made his big league debut as a September call-up last year, posting a 1.35 ERA with no record in 10 appearances, all out of the bullpen. He’s currently 1-0 with a 4.26 ERA over six innings with Iowa.
Ruggiano, who injured himself chasing a ball in the right-field corner Wednesday, is batting .229 (8-for-35) with a homer and six RBI this season. Parker has no record and a 16.20 ERA in two relief outings.
Slugger and 2013 first-round draft pick Kris Bryant has been assigned to minor league camp. (Photo by Stephen Green)
The Chicago Cubs have assigned 12 players to minor league camp, reducing their spring roster from 66 to 54 players.
Infielders Arismendy Alcantara and Logan Watkins, outfielder Matt Szczur and right-handed pitcher Dallas Beeler have been optioned to Triple-A Iowa. Outfielder Jorge Soler has been optioned to Double-A Tennessee.
Six nonroster invitees have been assigned to minor league camp: right-handed pitchers Marcus Hatley and Carlos Pimentel, left-handed pitcher Eric Jokisch, infielders Kris Bryant and Jeudy Valdez, and outfielder Albert Almora.
Additionally, outfielder Aaron Cunningham has been granted his release.
Chicago’s spring roster now consists of 27 pitchers (seven nonroster invitees), five catchers (three nonroster invitees), 11 infielders (four nonroster invitees) and 11 outfielders (five nonroster invitees).
(Photo by Stephen Green)
Major League Baseball’s offseason got off to a fast start roughly a week before the Winter Meetings began in December. There was an early rush that included address changes for multiple All-Stars; then marquee players like Robinson Cano and Clayton Kershaw nabbed record-setting contracts. And the frenzy stretched into late January this year as organizations, including the Cubs, awaited the decision of Japanese free agent Masahiro Tanaka, who eventually signed with the again-free-spending Yankees.
As for the Cubs’ roster? On paper, the squad looks quite similar to the one that wrapped up the 2013 campaign. Though that might worry some fans, especially after a 96-loss season, one of baseball’s youngest lineups should only improve with another year under its belt. Many members of the young Cubs core got their first full season at their respective positions in 2013, and that experience should pay dividends. Plus, the Cubs have one of the top farm systems in baseball, and many of those coveted players are getting closer to making their debuts at Wrigley Field.
“There’s room for improvement,” said Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein. “There are a lot of talented players on the roster who didn’t have their best year. I know they’re really committed to the work they’re doing this offseason and to doing better this year. And we had guys who did have big breakthroughs last year, and they want to sustain that progress and build from there.”
The team also added depth at several positions and bolstered the bullpen. Last season, the rotation was good enough to win, but the team struggled to close things out. This offseason, they plugged Wesley Wright and closer Jose Veras into the back end of the ’pen, which should keep the squad in a lot more games.
To get you ready for the upcoming season, we go around the horn to see what the roster could look like as the Cubs open up the season in Pittsburgh in late March.
Defensively, nobody plays the second-base position better than Darwin Barney. He captured a Gold Glove Award in 2012, and the 28-year-old had comparable numbers in 2013. But if Barney hopes to move into the Cubs core, the defense-first player is going to have to improve his offensive production. His on-base percentage and wins above replacement ranked worst of all qualifying NL second basemen last season.
“I think you have to remember that this game is hard, and that you’re not always going to play as well as you want,” Barney said. “Unfortunately, nothing came together last year, but I’m very confident that isn’t going to happen again.”
Logan Watkins, the Cubs’ 2012 Minor League Player of the Year, will continue his playing-time push at second and compete with the versatile Emilio Bonifacio and nonroster invitee Ryan Roberts for the extra infield spot.
Around the diamond, nobody’s job appears to be safer than first baseman Anthony Rizzo’s. Despite a dip in his slash line, the power numbers were pretty much as expected, including a position-leading 40 doubles. It’s easy to forget the 24-year-old just concluded his first full season in the majors, and the grind of a 162-game schedule might have gotten the best of him. The slugger’s numbers dipped midway through the year—he hit .210 in July and just .190 in August. But throw in his Gold Glove-caliber defense, and it’s safe to assume mistakes will be kept to a minimum on the right side of the infield.
The left side, however, has a few question marks surrounding its personnel. Sure, young veteran Starlin Castro will begin the season as the team’s shortstop. New manager Rick Renteria has gone out of his way to describe the great communication he’s had with the 23-year-old two-time All-Star, who is under contract for at least six more seasons. But it’s hard to ignore the production of top shortstop prospect Javier Baez, who has received plaudits from the front office, minor league experts and anyone else who has seen his lightning-fast, ultraviolent swing.
Depending on Castro’s production, as well as Baez’s continued development, the incumbent may have to eventually make way for baseball’s No. 4 prospect according to Baseball Prospectus, and shift to second or third. For now, the position is Castro’s to lose. He’s never been a patient hitter, but he’ll have to cut down on his 18.3 percent strikeout rate, which was second highest among qualifying NL shortstops last year. A simpler approach might be necessary to get the 2011 NL hits leader back to that level of success.
“I can’t really speak to what was the change or what transpired to cause how he approached his at-bats,” Renteria said of Castro’s offensive struggles in 2013. “But I can assure you that [the new coaches] are just looking to have Starlin Castro be himself and swing at good pitches.”
Third base is the grab-bag section of the Cubs infield. There are upward of five players who could realistically man the position at any point this season, and that doesn’t include the overflow from short. As it currently stands, the underrated duo of Luis Valbuena and Donnie Murphy should begin the year as a hot-corner platoon, with the left-handed Valbuena likely seeing more time. Despite a .230 batting average between the two, they combined for 23 homers, 23 doubles and a .327 on-base percentage last year.
Trade deadline acquisition Mike Olt also has an outside shot of breaking camp as the everyday third baseman if he can regain the form that once made him an untouchable prospect in the Rangers organization. But that will depend on whether he can put last year’s concussion- and allergy-related eye issues behind him and show the power/defense combination that got him all the way to the major leagues with Texas in 2012.
The first full season of the Welington Castillo era was a resounding success. The 26-year-old backstop exceeded expectations offensively while serving as one of the finest defensive catchers in the game. At the January Cubs Convention, pitching coach Chris Bosio and catching instructor Mike Borzello both took time to praise Castillo’s work ethic and the strides he made over the course of the year.
Typically, catchers don’t get to call their own games until they have years of experience, but Castillo picked up the ins and outs of the position so quickly—and so impressed Bosio with his ability to dissect the scouting report—that he had free rein on pitch selection in 2013. According to baseball website Fangraphs, he also posted 19 defensive runs saved, tops at the catcher position and sixth best for any player in the NL.
Former Royal George Kottaras will replace Dioner Navarro, who signed with Toronto this offseason, as the club’s backup backstop. Though Kottaras is only a career .214 hitter, he is a base-on-balls machine, drawing walks in 14 percent of his 820 career plate appearances. He should be a good addition for a team that had the third-lowest on-base percentage in the game last season.
Much like the infield, the outfield appears to be pretty well set, at least for Opening Day.
Expectations are high for 30-year-old right fielder Nate Schierholtz, a 2013 free-agent signee who opened eyes in the Cubs outfield last year. He led all of the team’s returning outfielders in WAR and nearly doubled his career home run total with 21, though he’s significantly better against right-handers (.262 average and 20 homers against righties vs. .170 against lefties).
It’s also a safe assumption that Junior Lake will get plenty of regular playing time in left field this season. Thanks to his slightly surprising but solid major league debut in mid-July, fans are expecting big things from the Dominican, who will turn 24 four days before the season opener. If Lake can cut down on his strikeout rate of 26.8 percent, it will bode well in other categories. His 27.8 percent line-drive rate ranked second in the NL among players with 250 plate appearances, and his .377 batting average on balls in play ranked third among NL outfield rookies. If Lake can cut his K total down, even to just his career minor league average of 23.8 percent, he could finish with a near .300 average.
The biggest offensive acquisition this offseason came in the form of Justin Ruggiano, a 31-year-old former Marlin with the ability to man all three outfield spots. Traded from Miami during the Winter Meetings for Brian Bogusevic, Ruggiano adds much-needed right-handed pop to the lineup and could form an effective platoon with Schierholtz. The lifetime .251 hitter had a career-high 18 homers last season and looks to improve on that total now that he is away from the spacious Marlins Park, where he hit only three dingers in 2013.
“I don’t think it can get much tougher [as a] ballpark than Miami,” Ruggiano said. “I’ve seen so many balls go 420-plus feet and go for doubles. [Wrigley Field] is going to be a good park to hit at.”
Ryan Sweeney, who re-upped this offseason to stay on the North Side, could see a lot of playing time in center field. Sweeney got off to a fast start in 2013, hitting .295/.342/.527 in 44 games before fracturing a rib trying to make a play on June 29. Though his return was less than stellar, he is a singles machine. More than 20 percent of his at-bats have resulted in singles since he started playing regularly with Oakland in 2008. That ranks 21st of all players during that time.
Ryan Kalish, Darnell McDonald and former NL Rookie of the Year Chris Coghlan will compete with prospects Brett Jackson and Matt Szczur for a potential fifth outfield spot.
The starting rotation was undoubtedly the strong point of last season’s squad, as fans saw many young talents evolve with more playing time and higher inning totals. But the byproduct of two active trade deadlines under Epstein and Hoyer has been a lack of depth. Though the Cubs fell short in the bidding war for Japanese ace Tanaka, they did make a few under-the-radar acquisitions, adding Jason Hammel and James McDonald late in the offseason, that should serve them well.
Former manager Dale Sveum tabbed Jeff Samardzija as the squad’s Opening Day starter in 2013, and the power arm fought to live up to that honor all year. Though his 8-13 record and 4.34 ERA were not what Samardzija or Cubs fans had hoped for out of a No. 1 starter, he did strike out 214 hitters, reach 213.2 innings and complete an entire season for the first time as a starter. His 9.01 strikeouts per nine innings were fifth in the NL, and his cumulative strikeout total was good for fourth.
“I really feel like last year was a big learning process, coming off starting 30 times the year before and, before that, throwing 80 innings of relief. I really feel like I had to adjust myself toward the end of the year,” Samardzija said. “I think you look at August and July, and they weren’t great. You look at my September, and I really liked my September and how I finished.”
Though Samardzija slotted in as the ace last year, nobody put up a better season in the rotation than left-hander Travis Wood. The Cubs’ lone All-Star representative was as consistent as it came, going at least six innings in 26 of his 32 starts and making it into the fifth inning on all but two occasions. His 3.11 ERA was good for 12th in the NL, and he kept his team in a lot of games with his 6.9 percent home run-to-fly ball ratio, fifth best in the NL.
After signing a four-year, $52 million contract last offseason, Edwin Jackson will need to step up in his second year in Cubbie blue. Though he showed glimpses of the top-end guy the Cubs hoped he’d be last year, Jackson’s ERA ballooned to one of the worst in baseball, and his 18 losses led the NL.
The good news is E-Jax has dealt with adversity before, having been traded six times in a five-year period. At 30 years old, he has already been around the game for 11 major league seasons and has earned a reputation as a solid workhorse. The last time he finished with such a high ERA, he cut the total down by well over a run the following season.
A newcomer to the fray, right-hander Hammel adds some veteran experience to the rotation. The Cubs signed the 31-year-old, who was Baltimore’s Opening Day starter a year ago, to a one-year deal on Jan. 31. Hammel got off to a fast 7-2 start in 2013, despite a 4.98 ERA during that time. However, he dropped his next six starts and spent more than a month on the DL with a forearm injury. When he returned, he was inserted into Baltimore’s bullpen.
Many predict a successful first half for Hammel could lead to a trade, similar to what happened with Scott Feldman a year ago. Looking at the right-hander’s career splits, he could make a perfect midseason trade candidate, as he has proven to be significantly better in the first half (36-30, 4.47 ERA, 1.40 WHIP in the first half vs. 13-29, 5.29 ERA, 1.49 WHIP post-All-Star break).
Jake Arrieta looks to slot into the final spot despite and while he had arm issues as camp got underway, he comes off a successful spell with the North Siders in 2013. The once highly touted prospect came over in the Scott Feldman deal, and gave up one run or fewer in five of his nine starts to finish his Cubs run 4-2 with a 3.66 ERA.
That should give the Cubs a solid (and hard-throwing) front five, but the team also has some depth behind them, with lefty Chris Rusin and right-handers Justin Grimm and Carlos Villanueva. Rusin came up after the Cubs parted ways with Matt Garza in July and made 13 late-season starts. Though he definitely faded in the last month, he showed he has the ability to get major league hitters out.
Grimm, one of the arms exchanged for Garza, was told to prepare to compete for a starting job prior to Spring Training. Despite having just 19 career major league starts, the 25-year-old has an effective fastball/cutter combination and is still viewed as a solid prospect going forward.
Villanueva will serve as a nice cushion for the Cubs, who know exactly what they’ll get out of the 30-year-old swingman. He won a starting job out of Spring Training in 2013 and was great in April (2.29 ERA, .171 OBA) before stepping in to stabilize the bullpen. If Villanueva doesn’t win a rotation spot, he’ll likely serve as a long reliever while Grimm and Rusin are sent to Triple-A to hone their skills in the I-Cubs’ rotation.
If the rotation was the strong point last year, the bullpen was definitely its weaker counterpoint. Cubs relievers finished with a 4.04 ERA, a 1.35 WHIP (both 13th in the NL), 26 blown saves and 210 walks (both 14th in the NL).
The front office spent the early part of the offseason overhauling the ’pen, adding closer Veras as the group’s centerpiece.
“I think we’re bringing [Veras] in because I have confidence that he can follow through in the ninth inning. That’s a special inning in baseball,” Renteria said. “Obviously you guys have seen in times past that there have been particular issues in that particular inning.”
The 33-year-old finished last year with a 3.02 ERA and converted 21 of 25 save opportunities between stints in Houston and Detroit. He also brought his WHIP down nearly half a point from 2012 to an impressive 1.07, while striking out a respectable 8.6 batters per nine innings.
Pedro Strop should continue to improve since his July arrival via trade. The right-hander got off to a rough start to open the year in Baltimore, but finished with a 2.83 ERA, a 0.94 WHIP and 10.8 K/9 over 35 innings with the Cubs. He fits the mold of a two-pitch, late-innings power arm, and could spell Veras in the closer’s role if needed.
James Russell will again operate as the top lefty in the ’pen—but this year, he won’t be the lone lefty, thanks to the acquisition of free agent Wesley Wright. Though Russell gave the club all it could ask for in the first half of 2013, pulling into the All-Star break with a 2.78 ERA, the southpaw was plagued by overuse down the stretch.
Wright should help ease the load this season. The veteran lefty uses a combination of a two-seamer and a slider to get batters out, and he fanned 55 hitters over 53.2 innings in 2013.
Aside from Arodys Vizcaino—who hasn’t pitched since 2011 because of complications following Tommy John surgery—and possibly Villanueva, there are a number of arms who could compete for the final bullpen spots, including Alberto Cabrera, Blake Parker, Justin Grimm, Hector Rondon and Zac Rosscup. Last year’s big free-agent acquisition Kyuji Fujikawa should also be back in the mix by the All-Star break.
Down the Line
For the past two-plus years, Epstein and Hoyer have been preaching patience. Just one look at the Spring Training invitee list is proof positive that the club’s patience is close to paying off. The five biggest offensive prospects will all be in attendance to start the preseason, including the aforementioned Baez.
Kris Bryant will likely begin the year as Double-A Tennessee’s third baseman, but he could really push Valbuena, Murphy and Olt in camp. Though his professional career just started late last year, the game’s No. 17 prospect (Baseball Prospectus) has hit at every stop along the way, including in the Arizona Fall League. A productive half season of minor league ball could have him knocking on Wrigley Field’s door by the end of the season.
Another name to keep an eye on at the hot corner is Christian Villanueva, a return from the Ryan Dempster deal with Texas in 2012. Villanueva will start the season at Triple-A Iowa, but most scouts believe the plus defender could excel at third base right now. The only questions in the past have surrounded his bat, but an impressive offensive campaign in 2013, in which he showed strong doubles power and drove in runs, opened eyes around the game.
Infielder Arismendy Alcantara started gaining recognition after his scorching first half at Double-A Tennessee in 2013 and his productive Futures Game performance, in which he hit a homer for the International side. Though he’ll begin 2014 at Triple-A, the five-tool player could give Barney a run for his money at the keystone sooner rather than later.
A year from now, we might be having similar conversations about top outfield prospects Albert Almora and Jorge Soler. Though hopes of seeing the two manning the Wrigley outfield when camp breaks are a little premature, the duo will get an opportunity to impress in spring camp before being sent to their respective minor league destinations.
(Photo by Otto Greule Jr./Getty Images)
The Cubs named Ted Lilly as Special Assistant to President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein and General Manager Jed Hoyer on Tuesday.
The former Cubs left-hander spent nearly four seasons with the club, from 2007-10, and was a key contributor to both of the organization’s NL Central titles in 2007 and 2008.
In his new role with the organization, Lilly will spend time with the club during Spring Training, visit the minor league affiliates during the season, evaluate amateur players leading up to the draft and perform professional scouting assignments.
Earlier this year, Lilly announced his retirement as a player after 15 seasons with Montreal (1999), the New York Yankees (2000-02), Oakland (2002-03), Toronto (2004-06), the Cubs (2007-10) and the Los Angeles Dodgers (2010-13). He finished his big league career with a 130-113 record and a 4.14 ERA (913 ER/982.2 IP) in 356 appearances, including 331 starts.
Welington Castillo was one of 19 players to agree to a deal with the Cubs Monday afternoon. (Image by Stephen Green)
The Cubs have come to terms with 19 players on their 40-man roster with zero-to-three years of major league service time. The terms of the contracts were not disclosed.
The players who have reached agreements include right-handed pitchers Jake Arrieta, Dallas Beeler, Alberto Cabrera, Justin Grimm, Blake Parker, Neil Ramirez, Hector Rondon and Arodys Vizcaino; left-handed pitchers Zac Rosscup and Chris Rusin; catcher Welington Castillo; infielders Arismendy Alcantara, Mike Olt, Christian Villanueva and Logan Watkins; and outfielders Brett Jackson, Junior Lake, Matt Szczur and Josh Vitters.
The Cubs added RHP Jason Hammel to the rotation today. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty)
At their first press conference at new Cubs Park in Mesa, Ariz., Cubs president Theo Epstein and General Manager Jed Hoyer announced they have signed right-handed pitchers Jason Hammel and James McDonald to 2014 contracts.
Hammel, 31, is 49-59 with four saves and a 4.80 ERA in 215 major league appearances (158 starts) with Tampa Bay (2006-08), Colorado (2009-11) and Baltimore (2012-13). He has pitched primarily as a starter in the last five years and is 42-43 with a 4.60 ERA in 130 starts during that span. Hammel also has a pair of 10-win seasons to his credit (2009-10) and has made 20 or more starts in each of the last five seasons, including two years with 30 or more starts.
In his first season with Baltimore in 2012, 6-foot-6, 225-pound pitcher went 8-6 with a 3.43 ERA in 20 starts to help the Orioles to their first postseason appearance in 15 years, earning starts in Game 1 and Game 5 of the American League Division Series vs. the New York Yankees (0-1, 3.18 ERA). Hammel was also a finalist in the MLB Fan Vote for the last spot on the American League All-Star team. He followed up by going 7-8 with one save and a 4.97 ERA in 26 appearances, all but three as a starter, with Baltimore in 2013.
McDonald, 29, is 32-30 with a 4.20 ERA in 131 major league appearances (82 starts) with the Los Angeles Dodgers (2008-10) and Pittsburgh Pirates (2010-13). In his most recent full major league season in 2012, McDonald went 12-8 with a 4.21 ERA in 30 appearances (29 starts), setting a career high in wins a year after making a career-high 31 starts in 2011. He was limited to only six starts last year (2-2, 5.76 ERA) due to right shoulder discomfort.
The 6-foot-5, 205-pound McDonald broke into the big leagues with the Dodgers in 2008 at the age of 23 and split the next three seasons between the majors and minors before enjoying his first full big league campaign in 2011. He was the Dodgers Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2007 and 2008.
This pair of moves gives the team added rotation depth, which will come in handy early in the season. The team also announced that starter Jake Arrieta has experienced minor shoulder discomfort and is unlikely to start the year on the roster.
(Photo by Charlie Vascellaro)
The Cubs have invited 24 non-roster players to major league camp, including top prospects Javier Baez, Kris Bryant and Albert Almora.
Spring Training kicks off Thursday, Feb. 13, when pitchers and catchers are invited to report in advance of their first formal workout on Friday, Feb. 14, at brand new Cubs Park in Mesa, Ariz. The team’s first full-squad workout will be on Wednesday, Feb. 19.
The following nine pitchers have been invited to major league camp: right-handed pitchers Marcus Hatley, Kyle Hendricks, Carlos Pimentel, Armando Rivero and Brian Schlitter, as well as left-handed pitchers Tommy Hottovy, Eric Jokisch, Jonathan Sanchez and Tsuyoshi Wada.
Five infielders have been invited to major league camp: Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Ryan Roberts, Chris Valaika and Jeudy Valdez.
Seven outfielders have been invited to major league camp: Albert Almora, Chris Coghlan, Aaron Cunningham, Ryan Kalish, Mitch Maier, Darnell McDonald and Casper Wells.
Three catchers have been invited to big league camp: John Baker, Rafael Lopez and Eli Whiteside. Additionally, minor league catchers Luis Flores and Will Remillard will assist.
The following can be found in the January issue of Vine Line.
(Photo by Stephen Green)
The Cubs front office made one under-the-radar move this winter that’s no less important than signing a big free agent. With Brandon Hyde moving to the dugout to serve as bench coach for new manager Rick Renteria, the Cubs shifted scouting director Jaron Madison to the vacated farm director spot.
That makes the 38-year-old Madison the guardian of the team’s future, a role he admits comes with a great deal of pressure as the Cubs move forward with their plan to build a sustainable winner from within. But that pressure, he said, is one reason he left the Padres a year ago in a lateral move to the Cubs.
“San Diego is a great organization, but working for an organization with the history and tradition of the Cubs is a bigger challenge,” Madison said. “I know how much more it would mean to the city when we win. Chicago sports fans are some of the best sports fans in the world.”
In Madison, the Cubs have a farm director with a strong track record. Since beginning his career in scouting and player development in 2002 with the Padres, he has worked for two other teams, the Cardinals and the Pirates, that have cultivated winning big league teams from within.
The common thread among all three organizations, Madison said, is the constant, open communication that extends from the big league front office all the way down to the low minor league levels. For the farm system to produce, everyone needs to be pulling in the same direction.
And few people are more capable of keeping everyone together than Madison.
“He’s very intelligent and has a great presence,” said Hyde, whose relationship with Madison extends back to the late ’90s, when they played together at Long Beach State. “I think a key to him being a great leader is he’s a great listener.”
That was an obvious asset for him as a scout, a job that relies on relationship building with young players and their parents and coaches. But while Madison said his new job is completely different, he’ll still need to flex those relationship-building muscles.
“Everyone has to have complete buy-in, and to get there everyone needs to know what’s going on at all times,” he said. “There can’t be any whispering going on behind closed doors.”
Madison will spend the summer doing the same thing he did after the draft last year—traveling in a constant loop among Cubs affiliates to talk, listen and observe. Hyde said he thinks Madison will love it.
“The relationships you build with the staff members, the constant interaction with the coaches, rovers and instructors, and the process of getting your organization to be successful make it a fun job,” Hyde said.
But both Hyde and Madison understand the job is not about having fun. Not with a nation of Cubs fans anxious for a return to winning baseball.
“I read the blogs,” Madison said. “I know how much the fans want it.”
Madison, of course, is in firm agreement with the rest of the Cubs brain trust, preaching patience with the process and avoiding any firm deadlines on when the organization will turn the corner.
“I’m really excited about the guys we have in our organization,” he said. “I see a core of strong players we can build on and rely on for the foreseeable future, and I think the payoff will be a lot sooner than people may think.”
(Photo by Dave Durochik)
This offseason, the Cubs named former Padres bench coach Rick Renteria the 53rd manager in the organization’s history. Though he’s a first-time major league skipper, Renteria is a baseball lifer, spending the last 30 years in the game in some capacity. This month, Vine Line sat down with the 52-year-old to get a better understanding of his philosophy, his take on the job and much more. The following can be found in the January issue of Vine Line.
You could call it a premonition.
About 10 years ago, with the Cubs in the early stages of a successful run that saw them claim the NL Central crown three times in six years, Rick Renteria was coaching his son’s baseball team when one of the moms, who happened to be from Chicago, mentioned he would make a great manager for the North Siders. Perhaps it was his calm demeanor or the way he patiently explained things to the young players, but something struck a chord with her.
Renteria didn’t think much of it, but the conversation stuck with him over the years.
“Well, I hope she had a premonition that we’re going to have a lot of success,” joked the 52-year-old California native, who was recently named the 53rd manager in Cubs franchise history.
Renteria, a 30-year baseball veteran who has spent the last three seasons as the bench coach for manager Bud Black’s San Diego Padres, wasn’t the most likely choice or the highest-profile name out there. But what that team mom said a decade ago turned out to be surprisingly prescient. The first-time big league manager joins the Cubs organization with a reputation as a relentless optimist and an experienced shaper of young talent. And he might be the perfect fit for a team that is looking for a new voice and is stacked with high-upside young prospects just a year or two away from the major leagues.
Though Renteria is well aware of the Cubs’ recent history, it’s not his style to dwell on the past. It’s his job to take a franchise in the midst of a youth movement and help it improve and move forward. He credits much of his positive coaching style to his former Single-A manager Johnny Lipon, who coached Renteria at Single-A Alexandria in his third professional season in 1982.
“[He was] the most positive individual I’ve ever seen,” Renteria said of Lipon. “Here’s a guy who was a shortstop with the Detroit Tigers in a different era. He was an infielder. His demeanor was one that kept moving you forward, and that stayed and resonated with me.”
Renteria was officially hired on Nov. 7, 2013, but he didn’t make his first appearance at Wrigley Field until Dec. 5 because of offseason hip surgery. In his initial foray in front of the Chicago media, he certainly lived up to his reputation as an excellent communicator and an easy guy to get along with.
“I was struck by how comfortable I was watching him,” said President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein of Renteria. “Normally when you hire somebody new, and he meets the media for the first time, you’re kind of holding your breath to make sure he doesn’t put his foot in his mouth. We’ve worked with Ricky for a month now, and I was totally comfortable. I was actually checking emails while he was talking because I feel I already trust who he is as a human being. He comes from a genuine place, he’s extremely intelligent, relates to people really well, so it’s nice to really trust somebody in that role.”
The Cubs’ new hire has spent his early days as manager reaching out to his new players by phone or text and filling out his first coaching staff. He’s planning to head out to Arizona soon to see the new practice facility firsthand and to start working with his coaches on a plan for Spring Training. Vine Line was there for Renteria’s introduction to the Chicago media, at which he opened up about his plans for 2014, his notoriously positive disposition and his previous relationship with Cubs GM Jed Hoyer.
Vine Line: What was it that made you want to take the job here in Chicago? You may have heard from guys like Dusty Baker and Lou Piniella, this can be a difficult place to manage.
Rick Renteria: It’s a wonderful city, first of all. But the team that’s out there, the kids that are here, as you’re watching from the other side, they’re a very talented group. I’m fortunate to have the opportunity to be here and be with this particular club. I’m looking forward to hopefully moving things forward and chipping away at whatever we need to chip away at to continue to advance the process. It’s just a great challenge. It’s a great opportunity.
VL: Is there any overall philosophical difference we’re going to notice from the first days of Spring Training?
RR: I think everybody comes in probably not trying to reinvent the wheel. We want guys that are going to give us great effort, guys that are going to hustle, guys that are going to prepare. I’m sure these are things that everybody asks of their players. They’re young players. [They need to understand] that, as professionals, this is part of who they’re supposed to be. We want to be a club that’s going to be aggressive on the bases, that’s going to be smart, that’s not going to be reckless. A club that’s going to hopefully continue to grind through at-bats, execute, and get beyond falling into the trap of if you get a bad call against you, you get bothered and that you continue to add to that spiral by not finishing out a plate appearance or a tactical hit or whatever the case might be. A club that’s there to pick each other up.
Hopefully, these guys come together as a kind of family. I think if you have that, you start to build your own chemistry, and it can be a strength.
VL: You said in your initial press conference that you think the team can compete this year. The Cubs lost 96 games last year and haven’t made significant improvements yet. What’s going to be different in 2014?
RR: Well, I can’t speak to the losses of the past. My mentality has always been to continue to move forward. What we can do is learn from that experience. What occurred? What kind of mentalities did we have? What approaches did we have? What were the things that occurred during a particular ballgame that maybe changed the dynamic of that particular ballgame? Those are the things we have to study and retrack and retrace and use to our advantage.
The players we have, they’re intelligent. They’re gifted. Starlin Castro, [Darwin] Barney, [Anthony] Rizzo. You had a combination of guys at third base with [Luis] Valbuena and [Donnie] Murphy. Then you had Welington Castillo and Junior Lake, who came up later on during the year. These are guys that have talent. [Ryan] Sweeney. Nate Schierholtz is an experienced player who’s been around a little bit. You have the makeup of a club that can do some things. I think you’re playing in the big boy division [in the NL Central]. We all grew up wanting to play against the big guys. Well, here we are. That’s our lot. That’s the challenge. We have to accept it and do what we can with it and move forward.
VL: This is a team that’s going through some growing pains right now. So how is a guy with your positive disposition going to manage that?
RR: I try to maintain an even-keeled approach. No player wants to go out there and fail. They want to do well, and I think I understand that. We know that the game is about the players and that sometimes we need to help them through those moments when things aren’t going very well. Hopefully, we’re able to articulate what it is they need to do to improve, whether it’s their approach or if it’s a physical action that we’re able to address and help them move forward.
VL: Did you put your coaching staff together with that in mind?
RR: I think so. Speaking to all of the [coaches], their attitudes are extremely positive. They’re going to bring in the idea of wanting to continue to teach. Sometimes we forget that players still want to learn. They’re never not learning. We have to be able to present a consistent message. I think all these guys that are going to come on board have that ability.
VL: You talk of being even-keeled. Do you have a temper?
RR: Oh, I can get hot. Any competitor can get hot. You’ve got to pick your spots. I don’t think players appreciate people just losing it for the sake of losing it. Will I do it for the sake of people watching me do it? No. You may not see me do it at all, but I can’t guarantee that. When it happens, it’s got to be the right time. Those things kind of take care of themselves. It’s a feel thing. If you’re a guy that’s pretty even-keeled and then you end up losing it, [players] understand that you mean business, that it means a little bit more. But, for the most part, I think conversations need to be had behind closed doors.
VL: This organization has a lot of potential stars that are perhaps a year or so away. Have you looked at some of those players, and how excited are you to manage them down the road?
RR: Obviously, I’m very excited about the guys we have right now. And I look at the players that are coming, and we have some talent in the organization. They’ve done a wonderful job in drafting and selecting some of these players. Right now, my focus is going to continue to be on the guys that are here. They’re extremely talented, and—it’s like anything—they have to put it forward between the lines.
I think if we maintain a consistent and positive message, we’ll be able to have some of these players do what they’re capable of doing. There are peaks and valleys, but that’s where, as a manager and a coaching staff, we have to remain even-keeled and give them an opportunity to keep moving forward.
VL: Castro has been in that valley for a while. What’s your approach to turning a young veteran like that around?
RR: People ask me about Starlin, and I watch him from the other side and think, “Gosh, what a tremendously gifted athlete.” First of all, I’ve got to get to know him as a person, and I have to figure out what it is that moves him. He’s a wonderful kid. I actually was able to speak to him at length. He was one of the first guys I called, and he’s willing to do anything we ask him to do. I know people talk about him losing focus and having bad at-bats and things of that nature, and we have to address those things.
Sometimes we don’t have conversations thinking we don’t want to have a confrontation or maybe we won’t like the answer we’re going to get. But the reality is you have to have dialogue. The only way you can improve things is to converse and to try to [give players] a plan or an idea of how they can move forward. That’s one of the things we’re going to have to do as teachers. The whole coaching staff is going to have to approach this as being teachers.
VL: What’s your take on using advanced metrics to influence pitching decisions, defensive positioning and the like?
RR: I think all information is actually quite useful. It’s how you decipher it and how you use it—how you apply it. If you limit your understanding, you’re doing yourself a disservice. I use numbers. I’ve used numbers since I was in the minor leagues. I used to keep numbers on my board when people weren’t using numbers. But it’s how you use them and how you apply them [that determines] how beneficial they really are.
It’s basically consequences and outcomes. It’s telling you what guys have been doing. Sometimes you still have to put your eyes on those guys to have an idea of what they’re doing at that particular moment. You can’t limit yourself. You’ve got to use a combination.
VL: You have a reputation for connecting with young players. In your career, you’ve done just about everything. You’ve played, you’ve managed in the minor leagues, you’ve coached in the major leagues. Is that what allows you to understand what players are going through?
RR: Probably that and probably the idea that, you know, I was pretty much a grunt coming up through the systems [as a player]. I fought and hustled through every ground out and everything I could possibly do to play this game. I understand and appreciate the privilege it is to be here as a player. I understand that most people when they come out to see a ballgame, they want to see somebody give you a good effort—beyond winning. They want to know that you’re invested in what it is you’re doing. Hopefully, that comes out in how I approach the players, because I am invested in this.
VL: Describe your relationship with Jed Hoyer. You worked together in the Padres organization. Is that familiarity one of the factors that made you want to come here?
RR: Jed, you know, was in San Diego. And when he was there, we used to have conversations when he’d come down to talk to Buddy [Black] and what have you. For me, it’s nice to be in a familiar setting, knowing the people I’m going to be working for, or alongside. That played a factor in how things progressed. I expressed that this was the place I wanted to be. I saw the makeup of what’s coming up. I like who we have here now, and I think it’s going to be something that we can move forward.
VL: Everybody has an opinion about playing at Wrigley Field. You’ve been here as a player and as a coach. What was your take on this place as an outsider?
RR: Awesome. I don’t think there’s any player that ever comes into Chicago thinking, “This is a bad place to play.” We loved coming here. Everybody does. It’s a great city. The fans are always there. Even if they’re booing against you, at least you know everybody’s in it. That’s a tremendous asset for this team to have, quite frankly. Their home-field advantage is their community—is their fan base. When we understand it and use it and take it to our advantage and really understand how it works, hopefully we’ll be able to articulate that message, and we’ll get it, and we’ll be able to do some things that make the fans feel really good.