October 31, 2014
A Year With Rick Renteria
Rick Renteria won’t leave much of a legacy in Chicago. That’s not a knock on the man; he was afforded six months in charge of a sub-.500 roster, so he never really had a chance to leave his mark.
Just a few weeks after President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein assured the media that Renteria would be back for the 2015 season, Joe Maddon surprised the baseball world by exercising a little-known opt-out clause triggered when Andrew Friedman bolted for Los Angeles.
The Cubs front office, which is in the process of transitioning from building to contending, was obviously intrigued by this change in the managerial-free-agent landscape and pounced at the opportunity to add one of the most respected managers around. Whether that was fair to Renteria and whether it was the right thing to do for the organization are two separate topics, which I’ll address down the road. Right now let’s look at what type of manager Renteria proved to be in his lone season.
The fact is, it’s hard (and pretty unfair) to judge a manager on one season’s worth of games. Good managers often need time to really get to know their players, to truly understand how to put them in the best position to succeed. And many managers adjust and improve over the years as they learn from experience, or absorb new information from those around them (fellow coaches, front office members, etc.). Terry Francona and Clint Hurdle are two examples who immediately come to mind.
In-game, Renteria sometimes made some odd decisions. There were times when he’d bunt early in a game with a non-pitcher, playing for one run against a strong offensive team. He had the seventh most bunts in all of baseball. Without accounting for the context of each, it’s hard to judge that number, but I can tell you that there were instances when reporters gave each other sideways glances in the press box, questioning the decision of a bunt. Of course, there are times players take that decision into their own hands. And of course, it’s an issue that could have easily been addressed by the front office during the offseason if the lines of communication were strong. All indications are that they were.
There were also lineups that Renteria constructed that seemed less than optimal, particularly when Junior Lake and his .246 OBP was placed anywhere near the top of the order. But Renteria was working with an offense that didn’t have much thump, especially early in the season, so it’s quite possible he was doing his best to get certain players more at-bats. That could have been the case with Lake, with the hope that the toolsy, struggling outfielder would figure things out at the plate by seeing more action near the top of the order.
Renteria’s handling of the bullpen was probably the most criticized part of his game, but it’s also something most managers take heat for. Renteria leaned on certain relievers quite a bit (Brian Schlitter and Neil Ramirez were used heavily until each spent time on the disabled list with minor issues. Justin Grimm led Cubs’ relievers with 73 appearances), and occasionally appeared to go to the bullpen too frequently, playing matchups that seemed to be nothing more than a reliance on the old tried-and-true same-handed heuristics. To his credit, once effective relievers emerged, he didn’t hesitate to put the most talented arms (Ramirez, Grimm, Hector Rondon, and Pedro Strop) in high-leverage situations regardless of experience.
None of these is a problem that a manager can’t improve upon over time. Some are even a little nit-picky considering that the Cubs were out of contention quite early and (whether stated or not) the primary goal this past summer was the development of youth, rather than using the perfect strategy to win a game. And Renteria can certainly take some credit for where the Cubs youth ended up after the 2014 season.
Starlin Castro suffered through the worst season of his career in 2013, but under Renteria’s watch, the talented shortstop returned to the all-star form he showed early in his career. He also appeared more focused during games, something that even Castro himself admitted was an issue for him in previous years. If you ask Castro, he’d tell you that Renteria had a hand in helping him regain the confidence that got dinged during a disastrous 2013.
Anthony Rizzo also had a career season in 2014, establishing himself as one of the best first basemen in baseball and a legit middle-of-the-order hitter. Jeff Samardzija was dominant before being traded in a package for top prospect Addison Russell. Jake Arrieta broke out, Luis Valbuena proved to be a quality all-around player, Jorge Soler and Kyle Hendricks made successful debuts, and if the bullpen struggled at times early, the talent did come through as the season wore on and roles were established. All in all, developmentally, things went well for the Cubs in 2014.
Of course, just like not all the bad should fall on Renteria’s shoulders, not all of the positives are because of him either. The players deserve credit for putting in the work and correcting any issues that plagued them in the past—after all, we know development isn’t linear, so perhaps this was all inevitable. Further, Chris Bosio has earned recognition in his own right, as he has become one of the more respected pitching coaches around.
However, what can’t be denied is that Renteria excelled in how he handled the clubhouse and his players. Renteria never aired dirty laundry to the media. Pre- and postgame sessions with him produced very little in terms of juicy quotes, but that’s something I’d assume most front offices would prefer. And while some managers use the media to prod a player to do better, Renteria never did that in his year at the helm in Chicago. If there were issues with particular players, he kept them internal.
Renteria proved to be extremely optimistic and even-keeled, the type of attitude that has a way of permeating the clubhouse, which was definitely the case with the Cubs. In a season in which they narrowly avoided their fourth straight 90-loss season, there was little to no finger-pointing for tough losses and the atmosphere remained generally positive. Renteria believes the best way to run a clubhouse is to develop a family atmosphere and by doing that, he earned the players’ trust and respect.
There were some low points in the season that some took rather hard, but eventually the talented kids started showing up and the players, fans, and media started to see first-hand why the future on the North Side was a little brighter than the won-loss record indicated. Renteria was genuinely liked by his players, and even in just one season it became clear that predictions that he’d be a ‘player’s manager’ were accurate.
Renteria remained upbeat throughout his six months with Chicago and sometimes just seemed thrilled to be able to manage at Wrigley Field on a regular basis, often commenting about his beautiful surroundings on a wonderful summer day in the city. There’s no doubt that he had the ability to handle a clubhouse, and, given time, it’s quite possible—since he never appeared to be a hard-headed man—he could have improved with his in-game decision making.
His brief tenure will be remembered for the always-positive vibe and ever-present smile he brought to the ballpark every day. People in Chicago will likely always discuss whether it’s Rich (no), Rick (yes), or Ricky (if you’re a friend, which it felt like you were soon after introducing yourself). If given the opportunity and the talent, Renteria certainly could excel as a manager, and he did nothing demonstrably wrong to deserve losing his job after just one season. But clearly, to Epstein and company, the draw of adding the already established Maddon proved too attractive to pass up.