What Miguel Montero’s brutal honesty meant for Cubs and Kyle Hendricks

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AP

What Miguel Montero’s brutal honesty meant for Cubs and Kyle Hendricks

Miguel Montero picked the worst possible time to second-guess the way Joe Maddon handled the bullpen during the World Series and communicated with his players — a radio interview on the same day (!!!) as the championship parade through the streets of Chicago and a Grant Park rally that may or may not have been one of the largest gatherings in human history.

The cameras also caught Montero popping off at a time when the Cubs were hovering around .500 and running out of ideas to spark the defending champs. So team president Theo Epstein didn’t hesitate to DFA Montero in late June when the veteran catcher ripped Jake Arrieta for letting the Washington Nationals run wild on the bases. Eating almost $7 million in salary and shipping Montero to Canada became another button to press to shake up the clubhouse.

But Montero also came along at exactly the right time for Kyle Hendricks, who had 13 major-league starts for a last-place team on his resume heading into the breakthrough 2015 season that set up last year’s transformation into an ERA leader, Cy Young Award finalist and World Series Game 7 starter.

Montero doesn’t deserve a tribute on the video board when the Toronto Blue Jays come into Wrigley Field this weekend, but he also shouldn’t be remembered only as a loose cannon or a cartoon character.

“Miggy was huge for me,” Hendricks said on this week’s Cubs Talk podcast. “I know he didn’t go out the way he wanted to. He’s even texted all of us here. We have the utmost respect for him around this clubhouse. We know who he is, the teammate he was around here.

“For me in particular, he was probably the biggest influence right when I came up, from the catching side. He taught me a lot about pitching, especially at the big-league level. (He made) me feel comfortable at the big-league level.

“My development, I think, sped up a lot just because of him being around here, his experience, how much he knew the hitters, his feel and his ability just to talk to you. He could sit down and just have a conversation with you whenever.

“I owe a lot to him. And I’m excited to see him back here.”

The Cubs knew they were getting the good, the bad and the ugly when they traded for Montero during the 2014 winter meetings in San Diego, where they also closed the $155 million megadeal with Jon Lester and dramatically reshaped the franchise.

The Cubs wanted Montero’s edge, which only sharpened as he got stuck in various three-catcher rotations. But Montero welcomed Kyle Schwarber and Willson Contreras into the clubhouse, delivered a wake-up call to Albert Almora Jr. during a rehab assignment at Double-A Tennessee and worked with Arrieta as he blossomed into a Cy Young Award winner. Montero also became a bilingual intermediary last summer when Aroldis Chapman initially refused to talk to the media after making his Cubs debut.

After handling so many different personalities and styles with the Arizona Diamondbacks — everyone from Randy Johnson to Dan Haren — Montero made the case that Hendricks didn’t need to throw 97 mph to thrive when he could nail the edges and deceive and outthink hitters with movement and sequences. Street smarts from Venezuela and an Ivy League education became a great match.

“He always had that confidence in me, from Day 1, when I showed up in this clubhouse,” Hendricks said. “He caught my bullpens. He kind of saw what I could do with the baseball. He probably had more confidence in me than I had in myself when I first came up.

“That’s just how it is. You’re trying to find your footing. He just kept preaching that to me, telling me what he saw in me, what I could do, the ability I had against these hitters. And then we went out there together and kind of saw it happening.”

One Arizona official who knows Montero well theorized that he — like any former All-Star in his mid-30s nearing the free-agent market — simply had trouble coming to grips with the reality that he was no longer The Man.

Even if you may be right on both counts — and no matter how fast Montero patched it up with Arrieta — the backup catcher can’t blast a star manager and a star pitcher like that.

“It was too bad to see him go,” Hendricks said. “But that’s just baseball. That’s how it goes. You got to learn what you can from who’s around while they’re there and then move on. That’s just the nature of the game.”    

Why Cubs gave World Series rings to fired managers Dale Sveum and Rick Renteria

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USA TODAY

Why Cubs gave World Series rings to fired managers Dale Sveum and Rick Renteria

Dale Sveum and Rick Renteria scrapped for their careers as big-league players, paid their dues as coaches and dreamed about managing the Cubs team that finally ended a century-and-counting championship drought.       

In terms of style and personality, they also couldn’t have been more different, which was kind of the point when the Cubs fired Sveum after 197 combined losses during the 2012 and 2013 seasons.

Where Sveum had a constant 5 o’clock shadow and could be gruff with the media and brutally honest about his players, Renteria put a happy face on the teardown and could begin to actually see what the Cubs were building – at least until Joe Maddon opted out of his contract with the Tampa Bay Rays after the 2014 season.  

So much has changed around this gentrified neighborhood since then. Even the bar where team president Theo Epstein fired Sveum over drinks shut down and will reportedly be replaced with something called a Capital One Café. But in thoughtful gestures that recognized how the Cubs got here, both Sveum and Renteria now have 2016 World Series rings.

“We felt like they both came in and busted their butt to help our young players get better,” general manager Jed Hoyer said Wednesday at Wrigley Field. “They were both put in a position where we were rebuilding. Obviously, we were honest with both guys about the rebuilding process. But both guys were ultimate team members.

“Their willingness to go along – to execute the plan that we had set out for them, to play oftentimes with either inexperienced players or shorthanded – was remarkable.

“We think both Dale and Ricky had a big impact on our young players and really helped us win a World Series. It was the right thing to do to give them a ring.”

In contrast to the media blitz surrounding the private Steve Bartman ceremony, the Cubs quietly gave a ring to former general manager Jim Hendry, who now works as a special assistant for the New York Yankees. USA Today columnist Bob Nightengale included those nuggets within a revealing story about White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, who raved about the job Renteria has done during a rebuilding year on the South Side.

Hoyer – who knew Renteria well from their time together with the San Diego Padres – was there for the ring presentation last month in a hallway outside the visiting clubhouse before a crosstown game at Wrigley Field.

“I love the fact that the White Sox are high on him and have been happy with his contributions,” Hoyer said. “Not to go back over history, but he was put in a tough spot. We made a decision that at the time we even admitted wasn’t necessarily fair to Ricky. And the least we could do was to give him a ring.”

Chairman Tom Ricketts – whose family signed off on the gifts – is widely respected within the organization for the way he took an interest in the draft, knew scouts by name, invested in infrastructure and visited minor-league affiliates.

“There’s a long history with this organization,” Hoyer said. “A lot of people had a part in us winning in 2016. It wasn’t only people that were still here in 2016. A number of people had an impact on our players, whether it was through managing, through scouting, through player development.

“We thought the right thing to do was to honor those commitments to our team by giving them rings. And not acting as though you had to be here in 2016 necessarily and be part of the organization to have impact.”

Hendry’s group built the pipeline in Latin America that produced catcher Willson Contreras and left enough assets for the Epstein regime to flip and acquire players like Anthony Rizzo, Addison Russell and Kyle Hendricks. Former amateur scouting director Tim Wilken – who now works as a special assistant for the Arizona Diamondbacks – had the vision to draft Javier Baez and Jeff Samardzija.

Sveum, who earned a 2015 World Series ring as the Kansas City Royals hitting coach, hired coaches Chris Bosio and Mike Borzello and left his mark with the pitching infrastructure and game-planning system that helped market trade chips like Samardzija, Ryan Dempster, Scott Feldman and Matt Garza.   

The Cubs already gave a ring to ex-pro scouting director Joe Bohringer, who now works as a Seattle Mariners special assistant, and a number of long-time, behind-the-scenes employees who left before It Happened.

“When you take a step back and look at any championship,” Hoyer said, “there are just so many people that have an impact on it.”

A cautiously optimistic update on Cubs catcher Willson Contreras

A cautiously optimistic update on Cubs catcher Willson Contreras

It doesn’t look like Willson Contreras suffered a season-ending injury, but the high-energy Cubs catcher is expected to miss a significant portion of the National League Central race.

That’s an early read on Contreras after Thursday’s MRI on his right hamstring in Arizona, according to two sources familiar with the situation, though the Cubs haven’t revealed their plans for one of their most valuable players.  

That initial assessment would mean avoiding the worst-case scenario you envisioned on Wednesday at AT&T Park when Contreras grabbed his right leg running out a groundball and collapsed onto the outfield grass during a costly loss to the San Francisco Giants.

ESPN reported that Contreras will be sidelined for at least two weeks during a recovery process that could take more than a month. Cubs president Theo Epstein declined to comment on the possibility this could be a season-ending injury during an appearance on the team’s flagship radio station.

“I don’t want to speculate about that,” Epstein told WSCR-AM 670. “If it was a typical hamstring strain, you’re usually looking at four-to-six weeks, and that would give him a chance to come back with a little bit of the season left. But it’s really premature.”

Even before leaving San Francisco, the Cubs prepared to promote Victor Caratini from Triple-A Iowa and activate the backup catcher before Friday’s game against the Diamondbacks at Chase Field. Alex Avila – the respected veteran catcher acquired from the Detroit Tigers before the July 31 trade deadline – will take over most of the responsibilities behind the plate.

For all their inconsistencies and injuries, the Cubs (59-54) are still in a relatively good position. The defending World Series champs will wake up on Friday in first place – and only three games ahead of the fourth-place Pittsburgh Pirates. Contreras – who’s put up 21 homers, 70 RBI and an .861 OPS while also shutting down the running game with his strong arm – doesn’t have to wait until pitchers and catchers report to Mesa next year.

It could always be worse. But there’s only so much sugarcoating the Cubs can do before getting to the hard truth of what this means for the rest of their season.

“Obviously, he’s been carrying us,” manager Joe Maddon said. “Any kind of offensive resurgence we’ve had has been primarily centered around him and his contributions. And then his versatility – he can pick you up at first base. He can pick you up in the outfield. All the different things that he does – his energy – all that stuff is vital to us.”