In leading Cubs, Renteria must connect with Castro
New manager faces challenge in returning talented shortstop to All-Star form
Rick Renteria would have loved to have Starlin Castro's ability. He's made a life in baseball as much with his perseverance and knowledge, and now he gets a chance to see if he can make some of that rub off on Major League players, Castro in particular.
When he's announced as the Cubs' new manager on Thursday, he will be faced with challenges all around the diamond -- after all, this is a team that improved from 101 losses in 2012 to 96 last season. But the immediate priority, one that figures to occupy much of his time in 2014, is to stop the 23-year-old Castro's alarming decline from extraordinary to erratic.
If this plays out as Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod hope it will, it will be a case of a former first-round pick as a shortstop with Mexican heritage helping a talented Dominican restore his standing as an All-Star. There's some symmetry there.
To be fair, Renteria wasn't exactly an out-of-nowhere player as a pro. His play at South Gate High School in the Los Angeles area was noteworthy enough that the Pirates took him with the 20th overall pick in the 1980.
No one knew it then, but that put him in a cluster for future baseball management types. Terry Francona -- Epstein's most notable managerial hire -- was selected by the Expos with the 22nd pick, followed by the Mets taking Billy Beane 23rd and then John Gibbons 24th (both with compensation picks). But we're leading with the footnote.
While Renteria was a skilled player with a complete game -- the Florida Marlins called him "The Secret Weapon'' during a stint as a bench player behind the likes of Bret Barberie, Walt Weiss and Kurt Abbott -- he was small (5 foot 9, 172 pounds) in his prime and not particularly blessed with power or speed. He did have a magical ride through the Carolina League (.331/.361/.480 with 14 home runs and 12 stolen bases), but it was clear early in his career he'd be a guy who had to win jobs with his glove and his intangibles, not his tools.
That makes him Castro in reverse -- and maybe the perfect guy to get through to a well-meaning kid whose career has been going backward since at least June 2012, when Epstein dismissed hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo. Recurring issues with focus and concentration -- most notably called out nationally by Bobby Valentine during an ESPN telecast in 2011 -- frustrated Lou Piniella, Mike Quade and Dale Sveum but were easier to take when he profiled as a guy who could hit .300 and develop into a 20/20 man, if not even better.
Castro was a .305 hitter in his first 1,384 at-bats, leading the National League with 207 hits as a 21-year-old in 2011. He was batting .308 when Jaramillo got fired, and since then has hit .254, including .245 last season, when his on-base percentage was .284 over 705 plate appearances. James Rowson, who was promoted to the big league job from his position as Minor League hitting coordinator, was released from his contract along with Sveum's other coaches but could be retained in some capacity.
Castro's problems haven't been limited to growing confusion at the plate, where he may have lost some of his natural aggressiveness by trying to work counts. He committed 22 errors, which was 23rd among regular shortstops with a minus eight ranking in defensive runs saved, according to Bill James' totals. He even ranked at minus 13 in net gain/loss with his baserunning, putting him alongside the likes of Hank Conger, Evan Longoria and Buster Posey despite far superior speed.
Only one season into a seven-year, $60 million contract, he's a player in distress, at a time when Epstein would probably like to trade him for pitching. Javier Baez, who hit 37 homers between Class A and Double-A, is coming fast and his defensive metrics are at least as good at shortstop as Castro's were at the same age. It appears both Castro and Baez will enter 2014 as shortstops, but clearly something has to give.
It cannot have helped Castro's development that Renteria will be the fourth manager he's played for in five Major League seasons. Epstein and Hoyer know they need a manager who will be around for the long haul, as Francona was in Boston and Bud Black has been in San Diego.
Renteria, who served as Black's bench coach when Hoyer and McLeod were with the Padres, was the right man in the right spot when Epstein decided that Sveum wasn't helping develop the organization's players. He wanted a bicultural manager who could create a good atmosphere for the wave of players with Latin American heritage who will shape the organization -- among them Castro, Junior Lake, Welington Castillo, Baez, outfielders Jorge Soler and Albert Almora and infielders Arismendy Alcantara and Christian Villanueva.
He's getting a difficult job that could turn into a good one once ownership and the front office start spending heavily for top-tier free agents, which could happen a year from now, and would be a great one if the Cubs do become perennial contenders.
But in the meantime he's got to make the players he has better, and that job starts with figuring out what has happened to Castro and how to fix it.
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.