Results tagged ‘ From the Pages of Vine Line ’

From the Pages of Vine Line: Moving forward with Rick Renteria

Renteria

(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.

From the Pages of Vine Line: Q&A with Pedro Strop

Strop

(Photo by Stephen Green)

The Cubs acquired right-handed reliever Pedro Strop in early July as part of the haul for starting pitcher Scott Feldman. The 28-year-old got an opportunity to be a late-innings reliever for the North Siders down the stretch in 2013, and the organization hopes he can contribute to the bullpen again in 2014. The following can be found in the January issue of Vine Line.

COMMAND AND CONTROL  In Baltimore, I was passing through a bump in the road. I know I can pitch. It’s just things weren’t going my way. Since I got [to Chicago], I’m just doing the same thing. I’m commanding the ball better too, and that’s been a huge part of my career so far—commanding my fastball. Since I’ve been [here], I’ve been able to command my fastball more consistently.

HEAD GAMES  When you struggle like that, a bunch of stuff starts to come to your mind—a lot of negative thoughts. But I never lost my confidence. I just thought, “It’s got to change. One day it’s going to change. You’ve done it before. You know you can do it.” But, honestly, you can lose confidence a little bit. That’s the worst part is when you’re struggling to just get your confidence back and pitch.

RESTORATION PROJECT  When I got [to Baltimore] in 2011, they were in the same situation [the Cubs are in now]. They were building. And when I got to the Rangers, they were building too. I’ve been through that. So [the trade] wasn’t a disappointment. I just saw the positive sides to it. I was getting more opportunities to pitch, and I could be part of another team that grows up.

THE CLOSER  When you know somebody has confidence in you, it makes you feel more confidence too. About the closer situation, I’m just one of those kinds of guys. As a reliever, you want to be a closer. But I’m really not thinking about it right now. I just like to be ready for any situation that can help the team win. Just compete. I love to compete. I love the competition. Being up there in the seventh inning, eighth inning, ninth inning, it’s competition. I love that. I don’t care if it’s the ninth or the seventh.

CLASSIC MOMENT  Since the first WBC, I was wishing to be a part of that team to represent [the Dominican Republic]. It was huge for me to be a part of the [2013] team and be the big key for our wins. I was just giving it all I got. It was big. It was beautiful. … You know you’re playing for your country. You’re playing for the Dominican Republic. It was a dream.

FAN FAVORITES  I always watched Jose Reyes. I used to play shortstop. As a pitcher, I always liked Mariano Rivera. He’s a classic. He’s unbelievable. He makes things look way easier than they are. I would love to do what he does.

 

From the Pages of Vine Line: Q&A with Ryan Sweeney

SweeneyAstros

(Photo by Stephen Green)

The 2013 season marked Ryan Sweeney’s second stint as a major leaguer in Chicago. Originally drafted by the White Sox in 2003, the Cedar Rapids, Iowa, native spent two seasons on the South Side before being traded to Oakland and then Boston. Prior to last year, Sweeney was signed by the Cubs, where he enjoyed a successful, though injury-riddled, campaign. The following can be found in the December issue of Vine Line.

MOVING UP  I started off in Triple-A. I had to go there for a few weeks and then come up here. But I loved it. Obviously [the Cubs] gave me an opportunity to play every day. Being from the Midwest and being able to play in Chicago, I’m excited to be here.

BACK HOME  People always ask [if it was fun to play close to home with Triple-A Iowa]. It was fun, but that wasn’t my goal to go play for the Iowa Cubs. I knew I had to go there to get some at-bats before I came up, because I got nontendered so late by the Red Sox. I mean, it was cool, but it was snowing and cold the first couple of weeks, so it wasn’t really that great of an experience.

INJURY BUG  It always seems like when you’re doing good, that’s when the injury comes. It’s never when you’re doing terrible. It was definitely frustrating to be hitting decently well and [then to fracture my rib in June]—and to be playing every day at the time when I had the injury. I just looked at it as, “When I come back, I have to finish strong and show them that I can still play every day against lefties and righties.”

TV TIES  [Growing up] I was a Braves fan because of TBS, but my grandparents are huge Cubs fans. They watch the Cubs every single day. When I got drafted by the White Sox, they were like, “All right, well, we’ll root for you.” But now that I’m over here, they love it. They can just watch it on WGN every day.

GOOD DIRECTION  I felt like this was the right fit. I like the direction the organization is headed as far as getting young. I’m still fairly young for being a guy that has some time in. I just thought it would be a good opportunity, and playing here at Wrigley Field—there are worse places to play.

FENWAY VS. WRIGLEY  They’re both different. Being a part of the 100-year anniversary of Boston [in 2012], and then next year’s going to be the 100-year anniversary here, will be pretty cool. I like both places. They’re both great atmospheres to play in, and the fans are great.

SWING CHANGE  I went and hit with Rod Carew for a couple of weeks this last offseason and just learned some stuff from him, and [there were] some different keys I took away from it. I struggled a little bit with it in Spring Training. I was doing great hitting off the tee and flips and everything, but once you get into the game, transferring it over [can be difficult]. I feel like once I started the regular season, I was kind of where I wanted to be with my swing, not changing much throughout the entire year and just staying consistent.

OFF THE FIELD  I basically just play golf. I don’t golf much around here. I played at Cog Hill [a few months ago]. I’ve got a buddy that’s a part of a country club around here, so I play out there every once in a while. But I’ll probably golf a little more once I’m here a little bit more.

From the Pages of Vine Line: Schierholtz speaks softly …

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(Photo by Stephen Green)

The following ran in the November issue of Vine Line.

Last season, the man in the middle of the Cubs’ lineup did most of his talking with the bat. Perhaps in the grand tradition of former President Teddy Roosevelt, Cubs right fielder Nate Schierholtz simply decided to speak softly and carry a big stick.

You probably didn’t hear much about the outfielder’s breakout season in the media, and you certainly didn’t hear anything about it from Schierholtz himself. It’s not that the 29-year-old Reno, Nev., native and San Francisco resident is at all unfriendly or reticent with reporters. It’s just that before games, he was more than likely working on his craft in the batting cages. And after games, he was usually working out or getting treatment for one of the nagging little aches and pains he dealt with this year, mostly in silence.

“I just prefer to fly under the radar,” Schierholtz said late in the season. “I guess I like to lead by example more so than being a loud, vocal guy. I just try to go out there and play hard every day and help the team win. I feel like I’ve learned that over the years, and that’s how a lot of the guys were in San Francisco. It worked that way. Winning’s everything. Winning’s what makes this game fun.”

No, the Cubs didn’t win this year, but Schierholtz was one of the bright spots that may have been overshadowed by other developments. In many ways, it was a career year for the veteran, who has two world championship rings from his time with the Giants and also played for the Phillies at the end of 2012.

In 2013, Schierholtz put up a batting line of .251/.301/.470 (AVG/OBP/SLG) with 21 home runs and 68 RBI. Both the home run and RBI totals represented career major league highs for the lefty. He also tied his career high in games played (137), which he first set in 2010 with the Giants, and he set new career highs in at-bats (462) and hits (116).

The key, no doubt, was that Schierholtz finally got an opportunity to play on a regular basis.

“My biggest priority last offseason was finding a team, first of all, that I fit in with and thought had a good future, but also a place where I could play more and get more consistent at-bats,” he said. “That’s something that I’ve never really had since maybe 2008 in Triple-A. I’m fortunate for the opportunity here, and I tried to do the best I could with it. I know I’ve got more to offer the team, but I was happy to get the playing time I’ve gotten.”

Schierholtz began the 2012 season with the Giants but was traded to the Phillies on July 31, just before the trade deadline expired. (The Giants won the World Series and presented the outfielder with his second championship ring.) The Phillies didn’t tender Schierholtz a contract following that season, so he signed a one-year deal with the Cubs just before Christmas.

“That was a pretty hectic week, but I had quite a few teams calling,” he said. “In the end, I sorted through everything and decided that the Cubs were probably the best fit for me to come and win a job in right field.

“I feel like I contributed to both World Series. I’m proud of that. I’m proud of the two rings I’ve gotten. Being from the Bay Area, it meant a lot. It still does. It was tough to leave at first, but I also realized I’m getting a little bit older.”

Although people may have been surprised by the outfielder’s success—as a left-handed batter, he’s gotten most of his playing time and done most of his damage against right-handed pitching—Schierholtz was not one of them.

“I haven’t been surprised by anything, to be honest with you,” he said. “I think I’ll get better over time. I feel like my body’s still young in the sense that I’ve been like a fourth outfielder the past five seasons. For me, it’s just working hard this offseason and making a couple of little adjustments. I feel I’ve learned a lot this year playing every day in the sense that I have a better idea of what I have to do to prepare for next year, both physically and mentally.”

Regardless of whether the Cubs were surprised by Schierholtz’s good season, they were more than happy to get it. In a lineup that often lacked the necessary pop, the veteran outfielder provided a solid middle-of-the-order bat.

“No question he fulfilled what a lot of us and our scouts [thought],” said former Cubs manager Dale Sveum. “We thought if he could get that many plate appearances, he’d be able to hit 15-25 home runs and do some things with the bat. He runs well. He’s played a really nice right field. He’s done probably more than what we expected, really.

“He’s that guy you dream of as a manager. You don’t have to worry about him. You don’t have to worry about him playing hard, preparing. He tries to make himself a better player every day. He’s played with some nagging stuff. Obviously, he’s picked us up and had a really, really nice year.”

But Schierholtz brought much more than offense to the table this season. He also played a solid right field, and at Wrigley, that’s no easy trick. The wind, the brick wall, the configuration of the park and the occasional 3:05 p.m. start, which leaves the right fielder looking directly into a blinding sun, have humbled their fair share of outfielders.

“There’s a lot of different factors that go into it, from the sun to the wind and the whole playing surface,” he said. “It’s a little tougher than most big league parks. It’s something you have to work on and remind yourself to grind it out to do the best you can.

“It’s definitely [difficult], only because it’s the sun field, and the wind can change from an inning or two. It can change from blowing out to blowing across. The wind, the sun—there are a few factors here that make it more difficult than most places.”

Former first base coach Dave McKay, who worked with Cubs outfielders the past two years under Sveum, lauded Schierholtz’s work in right.

“I think Nate’s done a really good job,” McKay said. “He had a couple of little nagging leg things. He’s a tough guy. He had some issues where most guys probably wouldn’t have played. There might be times where he wished he could have gotten a better jump or continued hard after something, but we’ve been real careful with him.

“He’s a real pro. He knows how the game is played. He goes over the scouting reports on guys. You watch him out there, and he knows where I am [in the dugout positioning outfielders], and he adjusts to the count. As far as his defense in the outfield, I’ve been really, really pleased.”

As a player with five-plus years of major league service, Schierholtz has one year of eligibility for salary arbitration remaining. So if the Cubs want him to remain in Chicago, he’ll be back for at least one more season.

“I look forward to coming back next year,” he said. “Beyond that, I’m not quite sure. I’ve enjoyed my time here. I have only positive things to say. Yeah, I’d like to be part of the future. I’ve said that for a while. I’ve also got things to work on to improve my game to help the team.”

Schierholtz mentioned the word “improvement” on several occasions. He has an interesting baseball résumé and a tremendous background of success. In addition to playing parts of two seasons with world championship teams, Schierholtz was a member of the bronze medal-winning U.S. Olympic baseball team at the 2008 Beijing Games, where he played with future big leaguers such as Dexter Fowler, Stephen Strasburg and Jake Arrieta. These experiences have given him a sense of what he needs to do to get better and compete at the highest levels.

But if he wants to improve and earn even more playing time next season, he needs to work on his splits. He batted .262 against right-handed pitching but just .170 in limited action (53 at-bats) against lefties in 2013. He also did most of his damage in the first half of the season, batting .269 before the All-Star break compared to .230 after it.

“The grind of the season gets to you sometimes,” he said. “I feel like the mental game’s a little tougher than it is physically. That’s just something that I’ll keep in the back of my mind for next year. It’s good to know as a player that you’re going to go through ups and downs. It’s just part of baseball.

“I worked out a lot last offseason. I learned a lot over the years as far as how to play the game. I just try to work with the coaches on the little things, making those little adjustments. I feel I got a lot done this year. There’s always more to do.”

—Bruce Miles

From the Pages of Vine Line: Jed Hoyer Q&A, Part II

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(Photo by Stephen Green)

You don’t have to tell General Manager Jed Hoyer how difficult the Cubs’ 2013 season was. He was there for every pitch, hit and out. And no one in the organization—from the groundskeepers to the players to the men in charge—is happy with 96 losses.

But the GM also knows the organization has made a great deal of progress since he took the helm. The plan was clear from the get-go: Hire the best player development team in the business, stockpile as much high-ceiling talent as possible as quickly as possible, and develop a young, talented team that has the ability to compete year in and year out.

For the November issue, Vine Line caught up with the head man to discuss the 2013 season, improvements in the organization, changes within the club and what to look forward to in 2014. This is Part Two of a three-part conversation we had with the Cubs GM. The final segment will be posted later this week. For the entire conversation or more Cubs information, be sure to check out the November issue of Vine Line.

Jed Hoyer Q&A, Part I

VL: You’ve said you and [Theo] Epstein had some pretty frank discussions with former manager Dale Sveum at the All-Star break. It seemed like momentum to replace him really picked up in the last few weeks of the season. How hard of a decision was it to let Sveum go after just two years, and what qualities are you hoping the new manager can bring to the team?

JH: For both Theo and for me, it was a very difficult decision. We’ve both known Dale since 2004. He’s an incredibly hard worker. I think he wore a lot of losses in a really impressive way. He was very stoic about it. That’s a difficult thing. You have to talk to the media twice a day. You have to talk to the team every day. When you’re losing, keeping your chin up like that is really impressive. He did a great job of dealing with adversity. So it was very difficult.

I feel like when you list off some of the things we’re looking for in the next manager, one of the problems is people right away say, “Oh, those are all things Dale didn’t have.” And that’s simply not true. I think Dale can go on to be a really good manager. Theo used the analogy in the press conference. When we hired Terry Francona in Boston, he had, I think it was, four losing seasons with the Phillies and had really struggled there. He went to the Red Sox, and now he’s a potential Hall of Fame manager. I think Dale certainly has a lot of the characteristics of a very good manager, and I certainly hope he gets the chance to do it again because I think he’ll be successful.

VL: You’re just finishing your second year with the team. How would you grade your performance so far?

JH: Like I said at the beginning, any answer that doesn’t involve the wins and losses at the major league level is problematic. We’ve really tried to be as transparent as we possibly can. When we got here, we felt like there was a really big talent deficit, especially when you consider the other teams in our division. We’ve done everything we can under the new rules to try to make sure we can close that gap. In that regard, I think we’ve done a really good job. We’re a lot closer today to playing in and winning a World Series than we were two years ago. And we just have to keep on pushing like that. But there’s no question it’s difficult.

Two years in a row, we’ve traded 40 percent of our rotation at the deadline. August and September of both years were real struggles, especially when in both years we actually played pretty well in July and had things going in a good direction. But we made all those decisions for the same reason, which is that we have to stockpile as much talent as possible to compete with teams in our division that have been doing that for a long time. We’ve tried to be transparent about what our goals are. Our goal is to build a team that can come into Spring Training year in and year out and have a chance to win, and we’ve been really focused on achieving that. In a lot of ways, we’ve been really successful in that, but we’re nowhere close to our goal.

VL: How different has it been for you working in Chicago versus working in Boston or San Diego?

JH: One of the things I really like about being in Chicago and being with the Cubs is we have the same goal as the other 29 teams, but, in some ways, it’s a bigger goal because it hasn’t been done in so long. And I think we know just how much that means to the city.

When Theo and I started talking about this in October of 2011, a big part of why we were so excited to come here and be part of this was that we lived through 2004 [in Boston], and we saw just how much it impacted the city, just how incredible the entire thing was. Really, there’s only one place in all of baseball that we have a chance to relive that. You don’t ever need more motivation in this job because it’s so obvious what your goal is, and winning is such a great thing. But here, if possible, it’s even bigger because of what it means to the city and what it means to the fan base.

VL: How important is the impending stadium restoration to the organization? As beautiful as Wrigley Field is from a fan perspective, does it hinder the baseball side that the players are dealing with inferior facilities compared to most other major league teams?

JH: It’s really important for us to get this done successfully—and hopefully sooner rather than later. We’re not going to have the kind of revenues that a team in a city like Chicago needs to have until the renovations get going. We need to be able to have more signage. We need to be able to have a scoreboard so we can sell advertising. People don’t realize how important that is to the organization. Those are the dollars that flow right back into the team. We should be a financial monster sitting here in the city of Chicago with a team that’s unbelievably popular, but we can’t be that until the stadium gets renovated.

And from a player standpoint, we do have inferior facilities. We don’t have a really functional weight room. We have a batting cage that’s out in left field. The layout of the clubhouse I don’t think is conducive to the kind of oneness you want from a major league clubhouse. That’s a really big factor, and I think when we do have the renovations here and we can give our players first-class facilities, it will be a huge plus in not only improving our current players, but also in improving players going forward.

VL: Pitching was the main priority last offseason. What are the main things you’re focusing on going into 2014?

JH: You’re always going to be looking for pitching. The teams that have pitching depth are able to survive the marathon of the season so much better, so I think you’re always going to be looking for pitching every offseason. But our biggest focus—and it will be for quite some time—is improving our offense. We’ve got to get on base more. We have to have better quality at-bats. There’s no way around it. Our current offense isn’t good enough to be competitive. Obviously, we have a lot of young offensive talent coming in the minor leagues, but we need to add on top of that and really make our approach at the plate and getting on base a huge priority. Until we do that, we’re not going to be as successful as we need to be.

From the Pages of Vine Line: Q&A with RHP Justin Grimm

Grimm

(Photo by Stephen Green)

Cubs reliever Justin Grimm was solid in limited action after coming over from Texas in July’s Matt Garza deal. In nine innings with the North Siders, the 25-year-old right-hander finished with a 2.00 ERA. Vine Line caught up with the newcomer to discuss his transition to Chicago, the differences between starting and relieving, and his newfound opportunity to get in on the action offensively. For all this information and more, check out the November issue of Vine Line.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS  When I first came here back in April when [the Rangers] visited, the ivy wasn’t on the wall yet, and I was like, “Wow, this place looks kind of gloomy, you know?” But when I got here [as a Cub], I think my first day was a gameday, and the ivy was on the wall, and we had a good crowd. It was awesome.

FAN SUPPORT  I knew the [Cubs] were one of the top franchises. I heard the fans were awesome, win or lose, which is always good. You like to see fans do that, because I don’t know if it was that way in Texas.

TRADE TALK  One of the things I found hard is I came [to the Cubs] just trying to impress new people. And when you’re trying to impress other people, you don’t do what you’re capable of doing at first. Then you finally get settled in, but it takes a little bit.

STARTING OVER  I think the [transition to the] bullpen is going well, honestly. It’s different—more mentally. Obviously, there’s a physical component you have to get used to, but I feel like that’s the easier part. It’s more the mental transition of going from starter to bullpen, being locked in for six, seven, eight, nine innings every fifth day and knowing when you need to be ready, to coming to the ballfield ready to go every day.

DIFFERENT STROKES  I feel like I throw more fastballs out of the bullpen, attacking them with fastballs and trying to get early swings and early outs. When you’re starting, you’re trying to do that too, but you have a little bit of a different game plan. The starter is setting up the plan so when the bullpen comes in, they’ll be ready to go and be successful.

AL VS. NL  The only difference I’ve seen is that you may have first and second with one out early in the game, and then the pitcher comes up. They lay down a bunt or they’re swinging or whatever it is, but it’s a free out. Well, I don’t want to say a free out, because I’ve seen a lot of these pitchers hit. But [in the AL], you have a DH. You have a pretty powerful hitter in that spot instead of a pitcher. I’m not saying pitchers can’t hit, but it’s a little different when you’ve got a hitter practicing every day compared to a pitcher.

SWING COACH  I think [my swing] is all right. It needs some work for sure. I haven’t really swung since high school. I came into my first Triple-A at-bat and hit a single to right field. I had no clue what I was doing. But I think if I stay short with my swing, I’ve got a chance.

CAREER COUNSELOR  My high school coach—he’s the one who came to me and said, “I think one day you’ll have a chance to play professional baseball.” After I got hurt my junior year, we spent one day together, and we just talked. He was like, “You know, you can come out of this even better.” From there on, I just took it and started working really hard and developed a strong work ethic.

From the Pages of Vine Line: Wel on his way

(AP Photo/Micah Tapman)Reds @ Cubs May 4,  2013

(AP Photo/Micah Tapman)

Welington Castillo was a force both offensively and defensively for the Cubs this season. Despite the club’s poor record, his emergence as a Gold Glove-caliber backstop provided some hope for the Northsiders. His stellar ability behind the plate is something he’s worked hard at over the years and he’s gotten some help along the way. The following appears in the October issue of Vine Line.

When Welington Castillo arrived in the big leagues, he knew he needed to work on his defense. Now, thanks to a few adjustments and a lot of hard work, he could legitimately be a Gold Glover.

The Cubs brass has always thought highly of catcher Welington Castillo. Early on, the 26-year-old prospect-turned-starter showed the organization he had the ability to hit and the raw tools to develop into a strong defensive backstop. But there was something holding him back from truly reaching his potential behind the plate.

Prior to the 2012 season, the Cubs hired staff assistant Mike Borzello, a former minor league player and longtime bullpen catcher for the Yankees and Dodgers, to work with the organization’s catchers. His two years were a big factor in Castillo’s career trajectory changing for the better (manager Dale Sveum and the entire coaching staff were relieved of their duties on Sept. 30. It’s currently unknown if Borzello will return with a new manager).

“He’s been a blessing for me,” Castillo said. “He’s been helping me a lot. We go out to work on little things that sometimes I don’t feel comfortable with. He’s been really good to me. He’s been around a lot of good players, he knows what he’s doing, and I’m blessed to be around him.”

During his time with the Dodgers, Borzello helped turn Russell Martin (now with the Pirates) into one of the best defensive catchers in the game. He also spent nearly a dozen years with the Yankees, where he helped improve Jorge Posada’s defense enough to keep him behind the plate and allow New York to utilize his plus offensive skills in a position often occupied by easy outs.

Borzello said he looked at video of Cubs catchers throughout the system when he was hired, but focused particularly on Castillo because of how highly he was viewed throughout the organization. The coach immediately noticed some inefficiency in Castillo’s defensive approach.

“He was having trouble receiving certain pitches, especially to his left,” said Borzello prior to the season’s conclusion. “It was something that kind of alarmed me, and I thought we needed to make some changes. I approached him on it and thought we could change his setup. He was open to it and immediately admitted to some of what he thought were the weaknesses in his game, and they were similar to what I thought I had seen already. With him being open to it, we changed his setup, and we changed the way he holds his glove.”

The modifications required Castillo to alter the placement of his feet, which allowed him to receive pitches to his left easier, frame pitches better (leading to umpires calling more strikes for his pitchers), and create a more efficient exchange of the ball from glove to hand when attempting to throw out would-be base stealers.

Both Borzello and Castillo admitted it was a pretty major overhaul of his catching mechanics, but it was necessary to help the player reach his potential. While the changes may not be obvious to the average fan, they were quite impactful for a guy attempting to make the transition from top prospect to everyday major league catcher.

“He was open to it, we made these changes, and he seemed very comfortable with it,” Borzello said. “It took a little while to where it was second nature, but we got there. It’s like changing your swing. You’re comfortable a certain way, but you’re not getting the results you want. You’re not possibly maximizing your abilities, and I thought we could get more out of him with this change. And it worked.”

It would be hard to argue that point. Now, according to most defensive metrics, Castillo has not only become a legitimate major league catcher, he might also be deserving of 2013 Gold Glove consideration. Using Baseball Info Solutions’ Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) metric, Castillo has had the best defensive season for a catcher in the major leagues. As of mid-September, his 17 DRS was two better than Pittsburgh’s Russell Martin and six better than his defensive idol, St. Louis’ Yadier Molina.

Borzello emphasized that all the credit for the improvement goes to Castillo, who not only was open to the adjustments, but also worked on implementing the changes every day over the past two Spring Trainings as well as during the regular season.

Undoubtedly, Castillo still has room to grow. Throughout the year, pitchers like former Cub Matt Garza and current staff leader Jeff Samardzija have gone out of their way to praise veteran catcher Dioner Navarro, who served as Castillo’s backup this year. But it’s not something Castillo takes as a negative. He knows as he gets more playing time, he’ll continue to build a rapport with each pitcher on his staff.

“I think you never stop learning from this game,” Castillo said. “Something that made me better is just playing time. It makes you know and improve what you can do. You learn from game calling, knowing the situation. It’s hard, but the more you get to know [the pitchers], the more confidence you develop in your relationship. Then the pitcher knows what you’re doing behind the plate. You build a relationship, and you really know who’s on the mound.”

Borzello echoed Castillo’s sentiments that playing time is the key to becoming a complete, all-around catcher. He watched Navarro go through some of the same growing pains as a young player.

“You can’t rush the process,” Borzello said. “When Navarro came up with the Yankees, I was there as well, and his evolution over time has happened by trial and error. You learn from your mistakes, and you learn by dealing with different pitchers, different pitching coaches and just watching the game. Playing the game, you become a little more seasoned. It’s something you don’t just show up and know how to do. You don’t know how to run a Major League Baseball game behind the plate until you’ve experienced a number of games.

“Every staff is different, and every pitcher has different things about them you need to know. You need to know which guys need a pat on the back and who needs to be pushed. You can yell at some, and you have to hug others. You’re not only a catcher; you’re a psychologist. You have to befriend these guys, and they need to know you’re in their corner.”

Learning the ins and outs of an entire staff—especially a staff that has experienced as much turnover as the Cubs’—takes time, but Castillo already appears to be figuring things out.

“Sometimes it’s tough when you’re catching this and that from so many different guys,” said Samardzija, who just completed his second year in the rotation. “I like to do this, and other guys like to do different things. It’s hard to keep all those things straight. I think Wely has done a great job of separating what each starter likes to do, and obviously the bullpen is a whole other beast in itself. You’ve got to be able to control both ends for nine innings. He’s been durable for us, he’s been consistent, and he obviously cuts the running game down. All those things give you confidence when he’s in the lineup.”

Borzello pointed out that really getting to know opponents well isn’t an easy thing to do in the minors. In the lower levels, catchers don’t have access to the video and statistical breakdowns that are readily available to every big league club.

“Here, we have a plan that we’re trying to execute against on each hitter, and it’s [Castillo’s] job to know what that plan is going in,” Borzello said. “He does his work, he studies, he watches video, he cares, he puts in a lot of time. That’s something he’s improved on over the last two seasons.”

Castillo admitted he didn’t know where he’d be right now without Borzello’s guidance. From the overhaul in his mechanics to just pointing out the subtleties of the game while they’re sitting together in the dugout, Borzello has proven to be a major catalyst in Castillo’s development.

“He’s my teacher,” Castillo said. “I listen to him a lot. I ask him a lot of questions. We sit together and watch the game, and he’ll ask me about different game situations.”

This student-teacher relationship has clearly paid dividends. Former manager Dale Sveum is keenly aware Castillo is taking the necessary steps to become the elite catcher Borzello believes he can someday become.

“The things that have improved with Wely are the game management, the preparation, the pitch calling, and knowing the weaknesses of the hitters as well as anybody,” Sveum said prior to his dismissal. “He’s done a great job of that. Obviously his throwing and blocking are as good as anybody in the league. There’s no question about that.”

It was only a year ago Sveum was spouting off a laundry list of items Castillo needed to improve in regards to his defense. The fact that Sveum rightfully believes Castillo is among baseball’s best with the glove just goes to show how much the young backstop has accomplished in such a short time.

On the offensive end, the Sveum said he’d like to see Castillo come to the plate with a more consistent idea of what he wants to do. While the catcher’s power has yet to develop—he was slugging only .365 through mid-September—he has shown a dramatic improvement in his ability to get on base.

Through his first 49 games of 2013, Castillo posted a disappointing .294 on-base percentage with a measly 3.2 percent walk rate. In the next 57 games, he had a robust .401 OBP, improving his season OBP to a very respectable .351 with a strong 8.2 percent walk rate.

Borzello said when he came to the Cubs, he was well aware Castillo could hit, but that wasn’t his concern. He wasn’t brought in to make Castillo a batting champ. For most young catchers, the primary focus is on defense. Castillo came to the big leagues raw on that side of the ball, but hard work has helped him rank among the game’s elite behind the plate—so much so that Borzello believes outside of Yadier Molina, the recognized gold standard among catchers, you would be hard-pressed to find a better defensive catcher than Castillo.

“You are a coach on the field,” Borzello said. “You’re the one who makes trips to the mound to handle a guy and settle him down. Tell him, ‘This is what we need to do right here. Execute this pitch, and we’ll be fine.’ Whatever it is, every situation is different, and Wely is learning that. I think he’s well on his way to getting to where we need him to be when this team turns it around and becomes a contender.”

One of the most popular topics among sportswriters and fans for the last few years has been discussing which current Cubs belong as part of the team’s core. It’s quickly becoming clear that Castillo is doing the necessary work to have his name mentioned in that group and to hold a major role with the successful Cubs teams of the future.

—Sahadev Sharma

From the Pages of Vine Line: Remembering 1998 – Playoff hosts

Fifteen years ago, the 1998 Cubs squad became the must-see event of the summer, as viewers around the country tuned in to WGN to see Sammy Sosa, Kerry Wood and the cardiac Cubs stage one of the most dramatic seasons in Chicago baseball history. Day after day, it seemed like the team was in a dogfight, and every win turned out to be vital, as the Cubs need an extra, 163rd contest to finalize their postseason push and give Chicago fans their first taste of meaningful October baseball in nearly a decade.

To commemorate all the ups and downs, Vine Line celebrates our 10 greatest moments from that historic 1998 campaign in the October issue of the magazine. Today marks the final part of the 10-part series.

Wood-98

(Photo by Stephen Green)

10/3/98 – The Postseason

Game 3 of the NLDS marked the end of a thrilling, roller-coaster season for the Cubs. The team returned to Wrigley Field in an 0-2 hole against the Braves in the best-of-five series, but the crowd was in a frenzy as rookie Kerry Wood squared off against future Hall of Famer and former Cub Greg Maddux in the Cubs’ first home playoff game since 1989.

The start was actually Wood’s first since Aug. 31, as he was sidelined with right elbow issues through the back half of the season.

“I rank that above the 20-strikeout game for me as far as that first year of my career,” Wood said. “It was a surreal moment for me to match up with a Hall of Famer. For me to match up, a rookie, a young kid, a 21-year-old kid at the time, matching up with Greg Maddux in the playoffs, [it was amazing].”

Though Wood’s pitch count mounted for the first few innings, he held his own, giving up three hits and one earned run on a passed ball. But as Kid K neared the 100-pitch mark after five innings, manager Jim Riggleman removed his young ace, and the Cubs couldn’t hold on, falling 6-2 to bring an end to the dramatic 1998 campaign.

From the Pages of Vine Line Remembering 1998 – Game 163

Fifteen years ago, the 1998 Cubs squad became the must-see event of the summer, as viewers around the country tuned in to WGN to see Sammy Sosa, Kerry Wood and the cardiac Cubs stage one of the most dramatic seasons in Chicago baseball history. Day after day, it seemed like the team was in a dogfight, and every win turned out to be vital, as the Cubs need an extra, 163rd contest to finalize their postseason push and give Chicago fans their first taste of meaningful October baseball in nearly a decade.

To commemorate all the ups and downs, Vine Line celebrates our 10 greatest moments from that historic 1998 campaign in the October issue of the magazine. Today marks the ninth part of the 10-part series, which we’ll post here on the blog in the coming days.

941-Wild-Card-092898C-win

(Photo by Stephen Green)

9/26/98 – Game 163

The home matchup with the Giants on Sept. 28 was more than just a game. It was a single-elimination, winner-take-all battle royale to determine who would claim the NL Wild Card and move on to face the waiting Braves in the Division Series. There was a nearly unprecedented buzz at Wrigley Field. It had been almost 10 years since postseason excitement had come to the Friendly Confines, and fans were primed for the occasion.

“From the moment [I showed] up at the ballpark late in the afternoon, [there was] just this electricity I had never really seen at Wrigley before,” said Trachsel, that night’s starter. “The excitement of what winning the game would mean for our team and the organization and the city—and the number of people out on the street—I had never really seen that before in my time there.”

Gary Gaetti got the offense going with a two-run bomb in the fifth, and Trachsel departed with a 4-0 lead after surrendering his first hit of the game in the top of the seventh. Though the Giants scored three in the ninth off Kevin Tapani and Terry Mulholland, Rod Beck came in to shut the door for the Cubs, who held on for a 5-3 victory and their first postseason appearance since 1989.

From the Pages of Vine Line: Remembering 1998 – Beck’s 50

Fifteen years ago, the 1998 Cubs squad became the must-see event of the summer, as viewers around the country tuned in to WGN to see Sammy Sosa, Kerry Wood and the cardiac Cubs stage one of the most dramatic seasons in Chicago baseball history. Day after day, it seemed like the team was in a dogfight, and every win turned out to be vital, as the Cubs need an extra, 163rd contest to finalize their postseason push and give Chicago fans their first taste of meaningful October baseball in nearly a decade.

To commemorate all the ups and downs, Vine Line celebrates our 10 greatest moments from that historic 1998 campaign in the October issue of the magazine. Today marks the eighth part of the 10-part series, which we’ll post here on the blog in the coming days.

952-Wild-Card-092898A-Beck-R_CC

(Photo by Stephen Green)

9/26/98 — Rod Beck’s 50-save season

The stocky build. The chops. The mullet. Veteran closer Rod Beck spent only a year and a half on the North Side, but his time with the team was unforgettable.

In 81 appearances in 1998, “Shooter” became just the fifth player in major league history to accumulate 50 saves in a season. And none of them was more dramatic than his 51st, which he picked up in a 5-3 win over San Francisco in the Wild Card play-in game.

Beck, whose fastball rarely made it out of the high-80s, fanned 23.2 percent of the batters he faced and had a 9.1 K/9 ratio.

“It makes you realize it’s not about stuff,” Wood said. “Here I am, a kid who thinks he can throw it by everybody and break off these nasty sliders any time I want, and you hand the ball over to a guy who’s not throwing harder than 88 mph. But he’s just lights out. For me, that was the first little glimpse I got that it’s not about stuff, it’s about [knowing] how to pitch.”

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