Cubs Spring Train­ing pre­view

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - FRONT PAGE - On baseball Paul Sul­li­van

As a new sea­son be­gins for the Cubs and White Sox, Joe Mad­don’s shadow looms large over man­agers David Ross and Rick Ren­te­ria.

It was Mad­don’s un­ex­pected avail­abil­ity five years ago that made Ren­te­ria ex­pend­able on the North Side, lead­ing to his sec­ond act as man­ager of the re­build­ing White Sox.

And it was Mad­don’s shock­ingly short shelf life af­ter the 2016 cham­pi­onship that led to his de­par­ture in Septem­ber, paving the way for the re­mod­el­ing Cubs to hire Ross.

Now Ren­te­ria and Ross are hop­ing to repli­cate the suc­cess Mad­don en­joyed in Chicago in a 2020 sea­son that poses great chal­lenges for both.

They’re two dif­fer­ent per­son­al­i­ties who share the same goals and a sim­i­lar mes­sage of un­bri­dled op­ti­mism, try­ing to man­age their teams in an en­vi­ron­ment of changed ex­pec­ta­tions.

For Ren­te­ria, it’s a win-or-else sea­son with a Sox team ready to con­tend and a fan base tired of wait­ing for the turn­around.If it doesn’t hap­pen now, many fin­gers will be pointed in his di­rec­tion.

“That’s my goal right now,” Ren­te­ria said. “Not to miss this op­por­tu­nity.”

For Ross, it’s a wait-and-see sea­son with the usual chal­lenges faced by first-year man­agers with no ex­pe­ri­ence, along with the un­usual chal­lenge of man­ag­ing some of his for­mer team­mates. But with gloom-and-doom pre­dic­tions from both the an­a­lyt­i­cal ex­perts and the old-fashioned di­nosaurs, his first task may be to per­suade Cubs fans to be as ex­cited as him.

“It’s new,” Ross said. “New is al­ways ex­cit­ing to me. New ad­ven­tures … I can’t wait to get started. There’s a lot of (neg­a­tive) talk that goes around. I don’t feel like in gen­eral we’ve had that nice (off­sea­son) ex­cite­ment. I’m ex­cited as heck. I hope the fans are. We’ve got a chance to put an­other ban­ner up there in 2020.”

If you can get past the fixed smiles on the faces of Ross and Ren­te­ria, you may no­tice each has a basketball-sized chip on his shoul­der.

As much as Sox hon­chos have in­sisted Ren­te­ria is the right man for the re­build, he never has been given a team this tal­ented, so it’s im­pos­si­ble to know ex­actly how good a man­ager he is. Ren­te­ria’s strength has been build­ing re­la­tion­ships with his play­ers, who swear by him and in­sist he won’t change, even if the pres­sure to win has been turned up a notch or 10.

“He’ll be the same,” left fielder Eloy Jimenez said. “He was al­ways push­ing us to get a spot in the play­offs. Last year he pushed us, but at the end we strug­gled a lit­tle bit. This year we’ll be bet­ter with a bet­ter lineup and more start­ing pitch­ing.”

The ad­di­tions of free agents Yas­mani Gran­dal and Dal­las Keuchel have Sox fans think­ing big for the first time in years. And the play­ers are talk­ing big as well.

“The door is wide open for us,” short­stop Tim An­der­son said. “All we’ve got to do is show up and go out and take it. We have the right guys to do it and the right guy in charge to lead us.”

That guy is Ren­te­ria, who said he’s “not afraid of talk­ing about high ex­pec­ta­tions and win­ning,” though he won’t go over­board and make any pre­dic­tions or guar­an­tees.

“I know most peo­ple, they don’t talk about it be­cause you think you’re putting your own head in a noose,” he said.

Ren­te­ria’s head won’t be in a noose if the Sox don’t make the play­offs in 2020. Gen­eral man­ager Rick Hahn is un­likely to pull the plug, bar­ring an­other sea­son of 90-plus losses. But Ren­te­ria’s moves will be more scru­ti­nized, par­tic­u­larly with the bullpen, if the Sox are in con­tention.

“It’ll be up to every­body to de­cide whether we did the job we were sup­posed to do as coaches and man­agers,” he said. “I can’t worry about that. Never have, never will.”

Ross, mean­while, should re­ceive a hon­ey­moon with Cubs fans in his first year run­ning the dugout. He was the odds-on fa­vorite to re­place Mad­don be­cause of his close re­la­tion­ship with Cubs Pres­i­dent Theo Ep­stein, so it was no sur­prise he got the job over the more ex­pe­ri­enced Joe Gi­rardi, who wound up with the Phillies.

But re­plac­ing the pop­u­lar Mad­don won’t be easy, es­pe­cially if the Cubs get off to a poor start. Hon­ey­moons don’t tend to last long in Chicago.

Ei­ther way, Ep­stein be­lieved the time was right for a change.

“If it wasn’t right now, I think it’d be in a cou­ple years no mat­ter what,” first base­man An­thony Rizzo said of the Cubs hir­ing Ross. “His knowl­edge of the game, his lead­er­ship skill set, the way he can talk to guys and com­mu­ni­cate as a player … even when he (stopped) play­ing, I’d talk to him every cou­ple weeks just to run stuff through him. He’s been man­ag­ing games a long time be­ing a backup catcher.”

It may feel a bit strange at first to have an old buddy be­come your boss. But left fielder Kyle Sch­war­ber said the play­ers won’t treat Ross any dif­fer­ently and don’t ex­pect him to go easy on them.

“I don’t think it’s go­ing to be weird be­cause there’s a level of re­spect that he was given in that club­house when he was here,” Sch­war­ber said. “Ob­vi­ously he’s go­ing to be our boss and he’s go­ing to be mak­ing the de­ci­sions. We’re go­ing to back him. He’s go­ing to back us. He’s go­ing to get the ul­ti­mate level of re­spect.”

Ross al­ready is deal­ing with the awk­ward­ness head on, let­ting Rizzo know at a re­cent din­ner who the boss is.

“I asked him a lot of fun ques­tions,” Ross said. “It’s nice to hold it over his head that I’m dic­tat­ing his work and what he has to do. I still like to have fun with them. I think I’ll walk that line re­ally well be­tween be­ing their friend and be­ing their boss.”

The time for talk­ing isn’t over. We’ll have six more weeks of rosy out­looks from the two man­agers be­fore the Sox and Cubs be­gin their sea­sons March 26. Then it gets real.

And that’s when Ren­te­ria and Ross will have to prove to fans they were the right guys at the right time.


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