3/27/2014 10:00 A.M. ET
Present, future collide in new Renteria era
By Carrie Muskat / MLB.com
MESA, Ariz. -- This year, you'll hear a lot about Wrigley Field's past as the ballpark celebrates its 100th anniversary. This spring, Javier Baez, Albert Almora and Kris Bryant provided a peek at the future as they got their at-bats in Cactus League games.
Now, it's time to focus on the present Cubs.
On Monday, the Cubs open the 2014 season against the Pirates at 12:05 p.m. CT in Pittsburgh, and it marks the beginning of the Rick Renteria era in Chicago. After four straight sub-.500 seasons, the Cubs have turned the team over to the affable Renteria, who has spent 16 years as a manager or coach and another 13 as a player. This spring, Renteria, 52, has fielded more questions about Baez and the other prospects than the current roster, and he knows Cubs fans are eager to see the kids play. His message? Patience.
"My biggest concern is the guys who are here," Renteria said. "I understand all the youngsters are developing and moving along, which is great, but they'll be here when they get here. I think as a manager, I have a team. I have a team of guys who have been here, and I have to make sure they understand I'm pulling for them. The other aspects that fall into place will take care of themselves."
The Cubs who are here include Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro, Welington Castillo, Darwin Barney and Junior Lake. They've got their work cut out for them. Rizzo hit 23 homers and drove in 80 runs, but batted .191 with runners in scoring position. Castro is coming off a .245 season, and Barney hit .208 last year. New hitting coach Bill Mueller has been busy in the cages.
The Cubs ranked second to last in runs in the National League, and when they did score, they struggled, losing 43 games in which they had the lead. Jeff Samardzija, who will make his second straight Opening Day start, has seen a difference this spring.
"To see our youth out there and how we're playing, I've seen us create more runs than we have in the past, which is exciting, whether it's stealing bases or taking advantage of miscues on the other team's defense and taking long at-bats," Samardzija said. "I think that'll be a big key for us."
The secret weapon may be Emilio Bonifacio, a leadoff option the Cubs haven't had in the past. A non-roster invitee who signed Feb. 19, his versatility will allow Renteria to insert him anywhere on the field.
"We have a true leadoff guy in him, fast," pitcher Carlos Villanueva said. "We didn't have that last year. Little things like that add a lot to run production -- you add one or two runs a game. I don't know how many games we lost by one or two runs -- I heard the stats the other day and it was ridiculous."
In case you didn't hear, the Cubs were 5-16 in one-run games at home last year.
What does Renteria bring? He's very passionate, and he'll be more animated in the dugout than Dale Sveum was the past two seasons. He has connected with the Latin players because of his fluency in Spanish, and his team meetings last a little longer because he delivers his message in both languages. He's even tried to learn some Japanese.
"It's completely positive," Castro said of the attitude in Cubs camp. "Everything we talk about in here is positive, how we can win with this team, how we can prepare to compete in the season. The [NL] Central division is hard, but it doesn't matter. If you play the game right, you have a chance."
Three teams from the NL Central reached the playoffs last year, and the Cubs finished a distant 31 games back. They've resolved some of the past problems by signing Jose Veras as the closer, and they feel the bullpen is stronger with Pedro Strop, James Russell and Wesley Wright. Samardzija, Edwin Jackson and Travis Wood are back in the rotation and will be joined by Jason Hammel.
"I think we improved our pitching," Villanueva said. "When it comes to the position players, we didn't make that many changes, but just the fact that those guys have another year of experience will help a lot."
But did they do enough to win in the division? Last year, the Cubs were 41-45 against teams outside the Central and 25-51 against their division, tied with the Astros for the lowest winning percentage by any team against its own division in baseball.
"If you ask every person, they think we can go out and compete in our division, and we can," Jackson said. "As long as we keep that mind-set and we go out and play like that and we take that attitude when we take the field that we'll win, [we'll be OK].
"A wise person once told me, 'You keep tricking yourself to think something and eventually you'll start believing it and play like it.' We don't have to do a lot of tricking. We have a lot of potential in this clubhouse. It's a young team. We can go out and win games, and once you start winning, you get accustomed to winning. It's like wildfire, it's contagious. You don't have to think about the game a lot, you can just go out and have fun. That's what we plan on doing this year."
The kids are coming. Every time Baez hits a home run for Triple-A Iowa, fans will clamor for his promotion.
"They're close," Villanueva said of the prospects.
But they have to wait. Time to focus on the present.
"Opening Day is full of hope," Villanueva said. "You all dream big. You all want to get off to a good start. Team-wise, I do feel better [about this year]. It's different -- we have new leadership, new coaching staff. We know we're close, we know we'll have reinforcements during the year."
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.