SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer on Tuesday called manager Joe Maddon’s hire two years ago one of the most significant keys for the Cubs turning a rebuilding, last-place team into a World Series champion as quickly as they did it.
In the same ballroom on the same day of the general managers meetings, White Sox general manager Rick Hahn called Rick Renteria – the manager the Cubs kicked to the curb to hire Maddon – the kind of manager capable of doing the same thing on the South Side, as the Sox embark on what looks like a similar tank-and-rebuild process as the Cubs.
Could Renteria have won that Cubs championship if he hadn’t been fired?
“Oh, I don’t know,” Hahn said. “If you’re asking me if Rick Renteria is capable of winning a championship? Absolutely. There is zero doubt in my mind about that. Ricky not only has deep player development roots and is a teacher, so he’s well suited for a young club like he had when he was over on the North Side, but he has the strategic ability and intellect and feel for the game to certainly take a championship caliber roster deep into the postseason.”
The bigger question might be: When will the Sox’ newly hired manager get that chance.
The Sox are poised for a Cubs-like teardown and long-term rebuild as they enter the offseason in perhaps the best position of any team to exploit a weak free agent market by shopping controllable, affordable, high-caliber starting pitching (Chris Sale, Jose Quintana), two years of a veteran closer (David Robertson) and a Gold Glove outfielder who can lead off (Adam Eaton).
“Our goal is to put ourselves in position to win on a sustainable basis,” Hahn said. “We’ve taken the approach the last several years – obviously some years more successfully than others – where we’ve been focused on a short-term benefit. I think we’ve gotten to the point where we’ve had our conversations internally with [chairman] Jerry [Reinsdorf], [top baseball exec] Kenny [Williams] and our staff and scouts, where we realize putting ourselves in a better position for the long term is the more prudent path.”
Hahn spent a lengthy part of a media session Tuesday alluding to a full tank-and-rebuild process and expressing “frustration” about not being able to “put ourselves in a position with this current core” – while occasionally declining to actually specify what his offseason plans are.
“But we aren’t going to continue to take half-measures, so to speak, in order to hopefully, in some instances, catch lightning in a bottle or catch some upside here on a short-term basis in order to win,” he said. “We want to put ourselves in the best and firmest position to win on a sustainable basis going forward. If that requires a longer term view or perhaps some short-term hardships along the way, we realize it’s going to be for the greater good.”
The Cubs’ success, Hahn admits, is a driving force not only to win for the fans of the city’s other team but also offers an up-close example of the potential rewards for “taking that step back” that the Cubs and several other rebuilding teams have in recent years.
“I don’t know if those explanations would resonate more greatly now that the Cubs have had success, and people in Chicago have seen that,” Hahn said. “But I think it would certainly be something that, again, if we go down that path, that we would be able to justify based on what’s coming back in exchange as well as how we view this coming together in the future.”
Four consecutive losing seasons despite efforts to build around a talented core obviously cry out for a different approach.
But Hoyer is quick to point out the difficulties of the approach and the trap of assuming a championship is assured at the end of the tanking tunnel.
“The messaging in your clubhouse is really difficult; the messaging to your fan base is really difficult,” he said. “Fans grow to like players on their team. And when you trade away the guy whose jersey they just got for Christmas, or you trade away a guy’s friend or mentor in the clubhouse – whoever that might be – that’s hard messaging.
“And you have to try to be transparent about it, but it is difficult. I don’t think every rebuilding situation is going to work,” Hoyer added. “You’ve got to hit on a lot of different transactions. You’ve got to fix your culture after you’ve taken a step backwards. There’s a lot of steps to getting it right. A number of teams have done a good job of it and been successful, and we’re one of those teams.
“But I think that just the idea that you can rip the Band Aid off, be bad for a couple of years, make some trades and always end up on the positive side, I don’t think that’s realistic.”