MESA, Ariz. – Starlin Castro is on Rick Renteria’s mind.
The relationship between a first-year manager and a two-time All-Star shortstop will be watched closely as this camp unfolds. Underneath the Arizona sunshine, Renteria will be trying to connect with Castro, who’s entering the second season of a seven-year, $60 million contract that makes him a franchise player for the Cubs.
Maybe it was a Freudian slip. It was definitely an honest mistake, which will happen when you have to sit through hundreds of press conferences each year. It was an insightful look at how Renteria can have Castro’s back.
Renteria is still trying to find his voice in front of the cameras. He has a reputation for being an excellent bilingual communicator, though he’s also shown a tendency to ramble a little bit and steer specific questions about particular players into general statements and abstractions.
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Tuesday’s post-workout media session lasted almost 22 minutes and the most revealing part came when Renteria brought up Castro. A reporter had lumped Castro into an earlier question about first baseman Anthony Rizzo. A series of follow-ups got back to the original Rizzo point, but the pronouns got confused: What do you need to see from him this year?
Renteria defended the 23-year-old shortstop, pointing out how his error totals have dropped from 29 to 27 to 22 across the last three seasons, signs of the defensive strides he’s already made. Renteria then referenced Castro’s mental lapse against the St. Louis Cardinals last August at Wrigley Field.
“I know there’s been a lot made about a particular play with a flyball and a guy tagging up,” Renteria said. “The other morning, I was working out in the gym and I’m watching ESPN or whatever (and) they’re showing Larry Walker giving a ball to a fan on the right-field line with a runner on third base and a guy tagging up. They’re showing multiple players that have done that over the course of their career.
“But yet this is the biggest thing that’s ever happened in the game of baseball – Starlin Castro getting into a situation where he caught a ball and the guy happened to score from third base.
“It happens to the best of them. We just don’t want it to happen as often. (But) unfortunately for this young man, everybody decided that he was the one to pick on.
“I get it. It’s a situation in which a club isn’t performing as well as everybody would want. You wouldn’t want those things to occur. And we don’t expect them to continue to occur.
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“Again, this is a new year. Hopefully, a new environment where high expectations are being laid for everyone. It’s incumbent upon us as coaches to understand how these guys work and do things to help them stay on their toes as the game is progressing.”
When Theo Epstein fired Dale Sveum after a 96-loss season, the president of baseball operations talked about how “there has to be love before there’s tough love” with young players, saying the organization needed a “clear, unified message.”
Sveum’s brutal honesty didn’t always go over well with his players or his bosses. Beat writers appreciated his direct approach. In hindsight, threatening to send Castro and Rizzo to Triple-A Iowa last April might have been the beginning of the end for Sveum.
That will be a backdrop for Renteria’s daily press conferences. He’s the face and voice for an image-conscious organization that needs to sell the kids to the public.
Renteria processed a multi-layered question about Castro’s pattern of behavior, outside criticism, what you owe the fans and how you have to be mentally strong when the team’s out of contention.
“Your job is (to) go out there on a daily basis and give it everything you have on that day, regardless of where you’re at in the race,” Renteria said. “In regards to the pattern, I just got here. But that being said…I need to know and understand and have a grasp of the past. I have to because I need to formulate my approach and the foundation (I’ll) lay for my relationship with each player.
“It’s incumbent upon me now to know that: OK, if this has been a quote-unquote ‘pattern,’ how am I going to take the next phase with any particular player in any given position? What approach am I going to take with them to help them, hopefully, overcome those types of things and get better?”
It starts on Wednesday with individual meetings, a team meeting and the first full-squad workout at Cubs Park. Concentration will be a talking point.
“We’re trying to set a tone,” Renteria said. “We want them to be totally reactionary when the game comes into play. I think those patterns will hopefully start to dissipate because we’re taking a different approach. That’s my hope and my expectation.”