Optimistic Renteria leads Cubs into new year
Rookie manager embraces challenge of steering franchise in winning direction
CHICAGO -- You'll hear a lot about Wrigley Field celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2014. There will be retrospectives on the ballpark, replica uniforms, appearances by alumni throughout the season and plenty of fanfare.
It's the first year, though, for rookie manager Rick Renteria, named the Cubs' 53rd skipper in November.
Renteria's coaching staff includes holdovers Chris Bosio (pitching coach) and Lester Strode (bullpen coach), and player development director Brandon Hyde, who was named bench coach.
They've got a tough task. The Cubs lost 96 games to finish last in the National League Central, which had three teams reach the postseason in 2013.
Renteria, 51, is well aware the Cubs haven't been to the World Series since 1945 and have not won one since 1908, but that's all in the past. He compared his approach to the team's history as the same way a batter should if he gets a call against him by the umpire on the first pitch of an at-bat. Renteria is not going to dwell on that one pitch, or on the Cubs' lack of success.
"I'm moving foward," he said. "I'm going to keep grinding out, moving forward. I can't think about the past, I've got to remain even-keeled."
He's got plenty of work to do. Here are 10 questions facing the Cubs in 2014.
1. What will Rick Renteria do?
Renteria has spent 30 years in professional baseball, but he will be a rookie again when he takes over as the Cubs' manager. He's enthusiastic and optimistic and says raising four kids has kept him in tune with the youth movement, so he can relate to players. The Cubs are counting on his background in player development to help the young prospects in the system. He was encouraged to get into managing in 1998 after his playing career ended. He does speak Spanish, which should help.
"I can speak both [English and Spanish]," Renteria said, "and if I don't articulate an idea or concept the right way, it doesn't matter how many languages I speak."
2. Who's on third?
The Cubs used six third basemen in 2013, and they combined to bat .221, the lowest at that position in the NL. They did total 30 home runs, second best in the NL. Luis Valbuena had the most at-bats and appears to be the front-runner for the job in '14. But he batted .218. The Cubs will give Mike Olt a good look. Olt was untouchable in 2012, but the Rangers agreed to part with him to get Matt Garza last July. Olt was hit in the head while playing in the Dominican Republic in 2012 and having trouble with depth perception. However, Olt feels he has the vision problems under control once he began taking allergy medication.
3. Can Starlin Castro rebound?
The two-time All-Star looked like anything but in 2013, struggling to bat .245. He was one of the first people Renteria called after getting the manager's job. Castro, 23, has a career .300 average batting first and could be the Cubs' leadoff man in 2014. The goal is to get the shortstop back on track at the plate, reduce the strikeouts and eliminate the occasional mental lapses in the field.
4. How long will Jeff Samardzija be a Cub?
Samardzija is exactly the kind of pitcher the Cubs want. He's young, a power arm, durable and under team control for two more seasons. That also makes him attractive to other teams. The right-hander has been rumored to be traded since last July while the Cubs try to convince him to sign a long-term deal. Samardzija is willing to wait on that longer commitment until he's a free agent, which will be after the 2015 season. It will help that pitching coach Bosio returns to coninue his work with Samardzija, who is coming off his first 200-inning, 200-strikeout season.
5. Who's the closer?
The Cubs had the second-most blown saves in the NL (26) and head into 2014 not certain who will take over the closer's job. Carlos Marmol is gone via trade, Kyuji Fujikawa is rehabbing from Tommy John surgery on his right elbow, and Kevin Gregg is a free agent. Fujikawa won't be available until May at the earliest, and that is an optimistic prediction. The Cubs agreed to terms with veteran Jose Veras on a one-year, $4 million contract prior to Christmas, and he could get the job. Other in-house candidates include Pedro Strop, who has four career saves.
6. Can Edwin Jackson rebound?
Jackson didn't make a very good first impression in the first year of his four-year, $52 million contract as he led the NL in losses with 18. He was durable, did post 14 quality starts and stayed positive. Jackson shined in a six-game stretch June 30-July 31 when he was 4-1 with a 2.23 ERA, but he followed that with a 0-3, 5.97 ERA stretch in five games in August. Which Jackson will the Cubs get in 2014? We'll see.
7. Who provides the power?
The Cubs ranked second in the NL in home runs with 172, with 17 of those by Alfonso Soriano, who was traded to the Yankees. Anthony Rizzo led the team with 23 homers and 80 RBIs, and he'll need some backup. They ranked third in the league in doubles (297). But the team would trade the extra-base hits for more knocks with runners in scoring position. Chicago batted .218 in those situations, which was the worst in the NL.
8. What can Bill Mueller do?
This will be Mueller's first season as the Cubs' hitting coach, and he is the third to hold that job in the last three years. He won a batting title in 2003 with the Red Sox, hitting .326, was an interim hitting coach in 2007 and has spent the last six seasons as a special assistant in the Dodgers' front office. He's got a tough task. The Cubs want to lead the NL in on-base percentage. They ranked 14th in that category in 2013 (.300). Because the team did not begin Wrigley Field renovations, the Cubs will continue to warm up during home games in their clubhouse, hitting into a net off a batting tee.
9. When will the kids come up?
Javier Baez, Albert Almora, Jorge Soler, C.J. Edwards, Kyle Hendricks and Kris Bryant are among the Cubs' Top 20 Prospects and names to watch. Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein tells the kids they need to "dominate" in the Minor Leagues before they can be moved up. Fans aren't as patient. Baez belted 37 home runs and drove in 111 runs combined at Class A Daytona and Double-A Tennessee. Hendricks was the Cubs' Minor League Pitcher of the Year after posting a 13-4 record and 2.00 ERA at Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa. Almora and Soler were slowed last season by injuries, but that hasn't stopped the enthusiasm to see them play at Wrigley. Bryant, the second player taken overall in last June's First-Year Player Draft, has been impressive at every level. When will the kids get to the big leagues? They'll tell us.
10. When will the Wrigley Field renovation plan begin?
The city of Chicago has given the Cubs the go-ahead to begin a five-year, $300 million renovation plan, but it's stalled while the team and rooftop owners bicker over the view. The Cubs want to install a video scoreboard behind the left-field bleacher seats and a see-through script sign in right. Owners of the rooftops surrounding the ballpark are upset because their views will be partially blocked. Somehow, this needs to be resolved.