MESA, Ariz. (AP) There is one distinct message new manager Rick Renteria plans to deliver when the Chicago Cubs gather Wednesday for their first full-squad workout.
It has to do with high expectations.
”You shouldn’t fear having expectations – high expectations,” Renteria said.
The idea of the Cubs having high expectations might be a bit jarring given their recent struggles, not to mention that cursed championship drought dating to 1908. They’re coming off their fourth straight losing season, and with management’s eyes geared more toward the future than a quick fix, a big jump does not appear to be at hand.
It’s more about development now, laying the foundation and getting the most out of the young players on the roster while the top prospects develop in the minors.
That’s where those expectations come in. It’s about individuals not being afraid to set high bars for themselves
The Cubs fired Dale Sveum after two seasons and hired Renteria from the San Diego Padres’ coaching staff hoping he could do just that.
They’re looking for shortstop Starlin Castro to cut back on the physical and mental errors while regaining his All-Star form, and they’re hoping Anthony Rizzo delivers on his promise and becomes the slugging first baseman they think he can be.
In Renteria, they believe they have a manager with a calm and patience to connect with their young players that will ultimately lead to bigger dividends – particularly if top prospects Jorge Soler, Javier Baez, Albert Almora and Kris Bryant improve.
”It’d be nice over the next however many years for the Cubs to be constantly in the playoff hunt,” Renteria said. ”That’s my mentality. That’s my mentality today. It was my mentality when I took the job. I’m not afraid to say it.”
They have a long way to go. But they have a manager who knows a thing or two about coming a long way.
He once sustained serious facial injuries after being struck by a line drive as a minor league player in 1990, only to make it back to the majors a few years later with the Florida Marlins.
He was a longtime coach and manager in the minors for Florida and San Diego and spent the past six years on the Padres’ staff, serving as their bench coach for three seasons, before landing the Cubs job. He also managed Mexico in the World Baseball Classic last March.
The interviews with the Cubs, not to mention Seattle and Detroit, came at an awkward time for Renteria. He had his right hip replaced after last season and was unable to travel.
That meant that all meetings were conducted at his home in Southern California, with Renteria in sweats because he couldn’t put on a suit.
”Those were unusual circumstances, but he did a great job not letting it affect him,” Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said. ”He really dominated his rehab. It was nice to get to know him in his home, in an informal setting like that.”
Renteria wasn’t a complete stranger to management.
Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer and senior vice president of scouting and player development Jason McLeod both worked with him during their days in San Diego’s front office. Rizzo was also with the Padres when Renteria was there.
The Cubs aimed high, showing interest in Joe Girardi, but were forced to turn elsewhere after he decided to stay with the New York Yankees. They also interviewed Eric Wedge, Dave Martinez Manny Acta, A.J. Hinch and Brad Ausmus.
To Epstein, several things stood out about Renteria through discussions with former players – his baseball knowledge and his upbeat demeanor.
”He makes people look forward to being around,” Epstein said. ”He makes being at the ballpark fun, kind of raises everyone’s spirits. But he also holds people accountable.”
Cubs players mention his constant smile, with newcomer Jason Hammel even calling him a ”goofball” in the most complimentary way.
”He came up to me the first day I came in (and said), `Jason, hey, nice to meet you!’ And he slapped me on the face almost like your grandfather talking to you,” Hammel said. ”He made me feel very welcome. I’m excited. I feel like I’m wanted here.”
Renteria wants to get going, too.
”The last few seasons aren’t acceptable for us as Cubs, but it shouldn’t be something (players) use as a burden, as a weight or a realization of where we’re not,” Renteria said. ”Maybe we can use that as a motivation to take care of today. The reality is we’ve got to take care of today. If we do well today, it’ll take care of what happened in the past.”