Cubs hope hitting coach Bill Mueller can be a difference-maker

Cubs hope hitting coach Bill Mueller can be a difference-maker
November 22, 2013, 2:00 pm
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As a player, Bill Mueller showed the qualities Cubs executives want to see in their young hitters – patience, the ability to grind out at-bats and get on base. 

Now, it’s Mueller’s job to teach those lessons to Starlin Castro, Anthony Rizzo and the next generation of prospects the franchise is building around. The new Cubs hitting coach will have to guide Javier Baez and Kris Bryant through the ups and downs and maintain the kids’ confidence. 

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Mueller headlined the additions made to Rick Renteria’s coaching staff on Friday, bringing instant credibility as an American League batting champion (2003) and a glue guy on the legendary Boston Red Sox team that won the 2004 World Series.

Mueller, 42, had worked the last six seasons as a special assistant in the Los Angeles Dodgers front office. His background’s in scouting more than coaching, though he was the Dodgers interim hitting coach during part of the 2007 season.

There are natural connections here for an ex-Cub and a front office filled with former Red Sox employees. Mueller finished his career with a .373 on-base percentage and almost as many walks (543) as strikeouts (571) in 4,886 plate appearances.

“Obviously, the right hitting coach has to be on board with the organizational philosophy,” team president Theo Epstein said recently. “But maybe more importantly than that he has to be able to connect with players and teach them and support them and struggle with them and ultimately triumph with them.

“It’s going to take a really dynamic personality and somebody with great feel and the ability to connect with all different kinds of hitters, because not everybody does it the same.”

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As expected, Chris Bosio will return as pitching coach. Bosio has gotten good reviews for helping Travis Wood develop into an All-Star and Jeff Samardzija emerge as an Opening Day starter – while also marketing Matt Garza, Ryan Dempster, Scott Feldman and Paul Maholm for the trade deadline.

Mike Borzello (catching and strategy coach) will get a new title after impressing insiders with his video analysis and game-planning skills. Lester Strode (bullpen coach) and Franklin Font (staff assistant) are two more holdovers from Dale Sveum’s staff.

To keep the lines of communication open – an issue the front office had with Sveum during a 96-loss season – the Cubs promoted farm director Brandon Hyde to bench coach, a job he once had with the Florida Marlins.

As part of the restructuring, Jaron Madison shifts from amateur scouting director to farm director. Matt Dorey – the one Red Sox employee the Cubs were allowed to hire as part of the bitter Epstein compensation negotiations – has been elevated to amateur scouting director.

Mike Brumley, who spent the last four seasons as a first-base coach for the Seattle Mariners, will be Mueller’s assistant hitting coach. Gary Jones will be the third-base coach and focus on the infielders after working in the San Diego Padres organization for the last 11 years.

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Jose Castro – a hitting coach/coordinator in five different organizations across the last 25 years – will be the quality-assurance coach. The Cubs haven’t hired a first-base coach to replace Dave McKay, who took the same job with the Arizona Diamondbacks. 

After Sveum got fired, one team official felt hiring the right hitting coach could be just as important as finding the right manager, given how much the organization has invested in its position players. Castro and Rizzo are nearing pivot points in their careers, and all those elite prospects will have to figure it out at the big-league level.

“Ultimately, we want to lead the league in on-base percentage,” Epstein said. “You can’t just say it. You have to do it. You have to make sacrifices on the way to do it, and not every hitter is going to be a high on-base guy. But we want as many of them as we can in the lineup.

“The hitting coach can reinforce that message. The manager can reinforce that message. We can reinforce that message. We can put our money where our mouth is when we sign players, draft players and make sure when we acquire hitters we get some guys who naturally have plate discipline.”      

Last season the Cubs ranked next-to-last in the National League in on-base percentage (.300) and hit .218 with runners in scoring position. This won’t be an easy job and it won’t fall on one person. But after a lost season filled with “mixed messages,” Mueller could help change the team’s offensive identity.