CHICAGO (CBS) — With a group of young arms to nurture and protect, Chicago Cubs manager Rick Renteria must serve many masters in his quest to handle a difficult task.
As a first-year big league manager, Renteria was hired to develop and communicate with a young core of talented-yet-unproven players.
The first job was handled beautifully by the manager and his staff. The job designated Renteria to create a relaxed-but-organized atmosphere for Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro to flourish in. Both players have taken the reins of leadership roles on an inexperienced club and rebounded from below average finishes to the 2013 campaign.
The second part of the job description and call to action has been a much more difficult process to control. The game of baseball has evolved into a daily chess match of bullpens. The common thread among fans and front office types has become the scrutiny of the manager and his handling of or overuse of bullpen arms.
Former Cubs manager Dale Sveum was blamed for overusing lefty James Russell in his two seasons as the Chicago skipper. Russell pitched in more than 150 games during Svem’s tenure.
Shawn Camp in 2012 was used 80 times, another example of fan – and in some cases front office – outrage. Still, Sveum and now Renteria must navigate games where starting pitchers spit the bit, coming out after five inept innings.
Managers are hired to win games, but in a case like the Cubs’ situation, the direction of concern points several ways at the same time.
In this instance, Renteria must keep the communication line fluid with his pitching coach, bullpen coach and front office, all at the same time. This helps the manager determine who can pitch and who shouldn’t on a daily basis.
“That has been probably the most challenging part of the job,” Renteria said when asked about the additions of Neil Ramirez off of the DL and newcomer Jacob Turner (acquired from Miami for two minor league pitchers) to his bullpen mix. “We do have to monitor the usage and that is one of the reasons we have carried the eight (bullpen) pitchers. For the most part it has worked out, but it is challenging.”
You can bet it has been a challenge for a manager who wants to make the right moves to win a game, while bordering on overusing potential arms for the future.
Take the case of Ramirez, for example. The 25-year-old power pitcher did so well in relief that management had to slow the process down. He was put on the DL with shoulder fatigue and brought back slowly on a rehab assignment in Mesa.
Ramirez was tremendous out of the bullpen with a 0.96 ERA in 33 appearances for the Cubs. The problem for a sitting manager is to decide when to sacrifice using his best weapons to win a game or protect an arm from excessive use. The term “excess” is an extremely subjective call between coaching staff and front office executives. There is literally no finite way to determine right way or wrong way in these daily calls that get second-guessed for months and years to come.
“When you are in striking distance, you want to do everything you can to keep games close,” Renteria said. “Keeping a game in reach, even when you are down four or five (runs), is important.”
Yet the question is how important? Does Russell look back at those 150 appearances and regret not asking for time off when he was overworked? The young pitchers have the same goal as a big league manager: win any way you can that day.
In the case of the Cubs, protecting arms of the future transcends winning in a lost season. Just try to explain that to a manager and coaching staff who inevitably will be judged on win and losses.