Managers are very difficult to predict. So many important aspects of managing can't be quantified, which makes coming to a logical conclusion about who will make a good manager nearly impossible. I've written about this before. We can evaluate how a manager handles running a game, and I want the Cubs to hire a manager who can beat me at Strat-O-Matic. But knowing how to make up a lineup isn't very important, and neither is knowing when to bunt. (Hint: Unless it's the pitcher up, the answer is almost never.) Handling a pitching staff and knowing how to use a bullpen is important, but that's what pitching coaches are there for. The in-game stuff that gets most of the attention is really a small part of what makes a good manager. The most important part is the ability to train and lead 25 men.
When you hire a manager who has never managed before, you're taking a leap of faith. Even when you hire someone who has managed before, you can never be sure if the skills that worked at his old team will translate to the new team. For example, I believe Dusty Baker was a pretty good manager in San Francisco. His main job there was to make sure that Barry Bonds and Jeff Kent didn't kill each other, and if there's one thing Dusty is good at, it's preventing homicide in the clubhouse. No player has ever been murdered in the clubhouse on a Dusty Baker-managed team. But beyond that, Dusty was good at reading veterans and knowing how to get the best out of them. He could tell when a guy needed a rest or when they needed extra time in the batting cage. Sure, he couldn't make out a good lineup, but all he had to do was write down "Bonds" and "Kent" and he was in good shape. He couldn't manage a bullpen, but that didn't matter much if Bonds and Kent had given the Giants a six-run lead. But of course, when he got to Chicago, he didn't have Bonds and Kent and. . . well, you know what happened.
Same goes for Lou Piniella. Piniella was a great manager in Cincinnati and Seattle. When he got to Tampa Bay, he simply couldn't get through to the young kids on the then-Devil Rays. Then he got back to a veteran team in Chicago and he found the magic again, at least until he got too old and tired.
But at least with veteran managers, if you do your homework, you should be able to get some idea of how they would run things, even if you're not exactly sure how he'll mesh with the team. But a new manager is really picking out of a grab bag. You open a door and either a lady or a tiger is behind it.
Rick Renteria has all the qualifications to be a great manager. He played in the majors, even if he wasn't any good, so he knows what it's like from the player's point of view. He managed in the minors for several years, so he knows what it's like to manage a game. On top of that, his extensive experience in the minors gives him experience in player development.
Renteria was a bench coach in the majors for several years under a pretty good manager in Bud Black. Black, Joe Maddon and Brewers manager Ron Roenicke were all a part of Mike Scioscia's brain trust in Anaheim. Their managing styles are different, but they all learned from each other. Black is a very proactive manager who addresses problems early. Black is also really good at using his bullpen, which comes from his days as a pitcher and a pitching coach. Renteria was neither of those, but he got a first-hand look at how to do it.
Renteria is Mexican-American, speaks Spanish and played in the Mexican League. He knows what baseball is like outside of the United States.
Renteria managed Team Mexico in the World Baseball Classic. I don't know if that means anything, but it's worth mentioning that someone thought enough of him to hand him the keys to their national team. The Mexican team also got into an epic brawl with Team Canada, which probably also means nothing but Renteria did do a good job calming everyone down and addressing the media after the game. So he has at least a little experience with the media.
What I'm doing here, and what I imagine Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer did, is checking off boxes to see if there's any reason not to hire Renteria. Player development experience? Check. Experience in the majors as a player and a coach? Check. International experience? Check. Speaks Spanish? Check. Has experience dealing with the media?Check. People like working with him? Check. Is a certified master sommelier? Well, no one is perfect.
So there's nothing in there that should prevent Renteria from being a great manager. My extensive military experience (by which I mean that I've seen a lot of war movies, so you can trust that I know what I'm talking about) tells me that you can never tell how someone is going to behave once the bullets start flying. This is what happened to Dale Sveum. He had enough of the boxes checked too. And for his first season in the foxhole, he seemed to keep his wits about him. No heroic actions, but at least he didn't stand on top of the Wrigley Field dugout and shout "RUN! WE'RE ALL GOING TO DIE!" Then came last season and when things started going south mid-season, Sveum went all Kurtz on us and started muttering "The horror! The horror!" on every trip to the mound. When faced with the decision to have Darwin Barney lay down a suicide squeeze, he shouted "Exterminate the Brutes!" The Cubs have driven mad better men than you, Dale.
The same goes for Renteria. He could lead this ragtag platoon behind enemy lines and plunder a fortune in Nazi gold. Or by the end of April, he could be telling Chris Bosio that he needs to figure out who stole the strawberries. We won't know until the explosions start.
Epstein and Hoyer have a plan to make the Cubs World Series champions but as we all know, no plan ever survives contact with the enemy. Obviously the part of the plan that included Dale Sveum didn't survive. Perhaps this part of the plan will work. I certainly hope that Renteria is flexible enough to alter the plan when the tides of war shift because I assure you, they will.
Renteria managed in the minor leagues for seven years. He managed quite a few future major leaguers in that time, including Chase Headley, Nick Hundley, Nate Robertson, Dale Thayer and Evan Meek. But one guy in particular stands out because Renteria managed him in the minors for three seasons and later, he wrote a book about his life and baseball career. Everyone keeps telling me I need to read Dirk Hayhurst's The Bullpen Gospels and I keep saying "Yeah. Definitely. I'll get around to it just as soon as I finish this Raymond Chandler novel that's been sitting on my shelf for three years." But apparently Hayhurst mentions Renteria in his book so now I'm going to have to just break down and read it now.
Hayhurst concludes the prologue to the book (which you can download for free on a Kindle, so I've read that far already) with a quote from a manager that he later revealed was Renteria. Hayhurst relates:
A manager once told me, you don't have to be a major leaguer to play a big-league caliber game. He said players all through the minors play like big leaguers while some players all through the big leagues play like minor leaguers. On any given day spectacular things can happen in this profession. It's a game of luck and opportunity. Thus, we work hard so that we can make the most of things when they fall in our favor, have no regrets when they don't.
What does that mean? I have no idea. But it sure sounds good. Like Rick Renteria.