Thursday, November 7, 2013

Cubs All in on Young Talent with Renteria Hire

It seems that the growing trend in Chicago sports coaching searches these days is to hire the slightly under the radar, outside the box type with no previous head coaching experience. The Bears got theirs in Marc Trestman, who was only a head coach in the CFL and is off to a good start this season. The Bulls got theirs a few years ago with Tom Thibodeau, who has had resounding success thus far in his tenure. Illinois basketball got theirs last year in John Groce, who has done more with the program in his 18 months on the job than anyone thought possible. Now, the Cubs hope they are getting their own great hire today in announcing that San Diego Padres bench coach Rick Renteria will be their new manager, replacing Dale Sveum. Although the hire goes against what most thought the Cubs were looking for in terms of major league managerial experience, the hire could turn out to be just as important and valuable as those listed above.

For me, the primary reason that Renteria was hired over other favorites like Eric Wedge, AJ Hinch, and Dave Martinez, was the familiarity he had with Jed Hoyer, and thus Theo Epstein by extension. With the way that Epstein runs his club, he prefers to have a close relationship with the manager so that manager can act as an extension of the front office in the clubhouse. The role of the manager in this regard is to carry out the mantra of the organization from the top level on down and instill the culture that Epstein is looking to create on a day to day basis. Moreover, Epstein and Hoyer can be sure that decisions made before, during, and after games adheres to the philosophy that Epstein has for the organization as a whole, known as the "Cubs Way."

Theo is building the team his way
If that sounds like a lesson in micro management, or really being a control freak, then you're partially right. But that isn't necessarily a bad thing. Epstein was hired to reshape this organization, one known more than any other in professional sports for losing, to be a contending ball club year in and year out. He's done it before, as his two World Series titles in Boston attest, but to right a ship that's been smashed against the rocks as often as the Cubs (or, keeping with the metaphor, has never really left the harbor), he needs to be sure that not only can he trust the people he hires to do the job on a fundamental level, but that they're going to keep the direction of the team moving in the right direction. Theo obviously felt that Sveum wasn't getting this done on a regular basis. With the success of the team's future, and thus Theo's tenure, on the line, the decision to hire someone he could trust was obvious.

Because of his statement upon Sveum's firing that he was looking for someone with managerial experience, and the resulting hiring of someone with zero such experience, you have to think that Joe Girardi was the first choice. When that didn't pan out, Theo wanted to first be comfortable with the person he hired, and second know it was someone he could trust. So while I don't like that Renteria comes with zero Major League managerial experience, I say that with the caveat that for the Cubs, it isn't the biggest deal. This isn't a team trying to win right now. They needed a manager who can develop talent and bring them up the right way, with the vision that Theo & Co. have in mind for this team. Renteria fits that mold; if you're going to be fielding a team soon with very little experience but a ton of potential and promise, why not find a manager with the same qualities?

What Renteria does have is valuable experience. He spent eight seasons as a minor league manager in the Marlin and Padre farm systems. These are two farm systems known for their upper level talent on a consistent basis, so Renteria knows how to develop, maintain, and get the most out of upper level prospects. He's spent the past two seasons as bench coach for the San Diego Padres, serving under 2010 National League Manager of the Year Bud Black. He even managed Team Mexico in last year's World Baseball Classic. So, while he doesn't have extensive managerial experience, he makes up for the lack of quantity with quality.

Most importantly, though, he fits the bill of other qualities the Cubs' brass is looking for. He's well respected for his qualities as a teacher and communicator, fulfilling the requirement of leadership that Theo was looking for. Former players have raved about his knowledge of the game and his ability to relate to players young and old. His passion for the sport is known in the same way, and you have to believe it will only be furthered by the immense challenge before him. 

The Cubs are an organization brimming with young talent, and yet the portion of that talent that had reached the major league level (namely, Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo), significantly regressed under Dale Sveum's leadership. With Renteria, the Cubs get a hands-on teacher, someone who won't lose his younger players and instead will be able to instill & create an atmosphere for learning and development where the current young talent and future top prospects can thrive. If he can start his tenure by reversing the stagnated development of Castro and Rizzo, then he's already exceeded expectations.

Renteria should aid top prospects like Baez
More than that, though, he speaks Spanish. It may seem trivial, but with the plethora of young Latin stars on the horizon - like Javier Baez, Junior Lake, Jorge Soler, Arismendy Alcantara, and even Starlin Castro - who speak Spanish, it can only help with relating to the kids and helping assimilate them into the culture Epstein is trying to create. You look around baseball, and consistent winning clubs like (I hate to say) the Cardinals, have atmospheres and cultures that lead to consistent success. Epstein knows this as well as anyone else, and something like the fact that Renteria is bilingual is certainly a huge bonus to the hiring. Everything matters, no matter how small, when the future hinges on the development of top young talent, even a language barrier.

When you get past his lack of managerial experience, it is hard to find flaws with the hiring. Baseball is such a different sport from the rest of the big sports, in that the ability of a manager to be energetic, engaging, and yet at the same time the boss, is key to maintaining consistency in the normal ebb and flow of a long season. Renteria is a highly respected coach, one that garners adjectives like "energetic," "great leader," "fiery," and "great communicator" from both his peers and players under his tutelage. He fits the bill of the new culture that Esptein is trying to create and adds to it with his communication ability and Spanish speaking ability. The Cubs are still a losing team, but with the additions they've made, and hopefully this hire, the future is getting brighter and brighter. The goal, and every decision made by the front office has this in mind, is that the "Cubs Way" can become more of a reality than the press conference fodder it is now. Who knows, maybe Renteria can bring the same kind of success and excitement to Clark and Addison that Trestman, Thibodeau, and Groce have brought to their teams.