(CBS) — Rick Renteria was a stranger in a strange land when he greeted his young players for the first time ever this February in Mesa, Ariz.
Although the team’s record is the worst by percentage points in baseball, the individual results appear on the upswing. The Cubs first-year manager is satisfied with the effort so far.
“I am happy with it,” he says. “Everybody learns in a different way. We (as coaches ) have to be creative. Conversations need to be had. It is the rule of 1,000. If I say things one thousand times to teach, I will start all over again. We just keep repeating and keep attacking the things we need to attack. That is what we want to do both individually and collectively.”
Top young players Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro have been more aggressive and in some ways more productive than last season. A major part of Renteria’s job is to build the youthful duo up and help them lead the incomplete mix of offensive output on this club.
For players like Junior Lake and Mike Olt, every day at-bats are not a sure thing.
“When guys start to run a little hot, sure, we like to keep them in there,” the manager related. “A lot of times when guys are doing well we must take into account the match-ups we are given and letting them have the success that they need to. Our job is to make sure their approaches are solid and the at-bats that they get are going to be productive.”
Renteria must satisfy his bosses with the results of his group and at the same time prove that he is behind the players’ needs equally. This is a complicated area for a new manager who is still developing credibility and trust with all of the above.
An example of the high-wire act was the pitch-count debate surrounding starter Jeff Samardzija. The Cub ace threw 127 pitches against the White Sox in early May, drawing the attention of the baseball front office.
Since that time, Samardzija has thrown four consecutive starts with less than 100 pitches. The question that players ask is if that is to serve the pitcher in the right way, or placate front office executives who are concerned with a franchise arm that may be traded.
That type of situation can hurt a new manager on both ends. Renteria, for his part, has been honest and tough when he needs to be. One player was told he would be grabbing some bench if the effort did not improve.
The joy of the game has returned for Castro. The tough-love approach of former manager Dale Sveum was supported by the same baseball people that turned over the team to Renteria.
Renteria gave Castro something to think about when he dropped him to the number-five spot in the lineup in early April. Instead of sulking like he did last year, Castro responded to his manager, telling him he needed the shortstop to drive in runs from that slot, while Renteria loaded the front of the lineup card with left-handed hitters.
Positive reinforcement — that has in most cases produced positive results for the Cubs’ young core of players.