Two of the staff changes the Cubs announced Tuesday afternoon were mere formalities, one was a bit of a surprise, and another has the potential to be more vital to the organization’s future than all the rest combined. And it’s the one that flew completely under the radar for most people. We’ll get to that in a moment, but first let’s cover the easy ones.
Former Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey was officially named to the same role for the Cubs, while former Cubs first base coach Brandon Hyde was named bench coach. Hickey served under Maddon in this capacity when the two were in Tampa and Hyde was Rick Renteria’s bench coach during his season on the North Side, so there’s some nice full-circle action going on here.
And if we really want to dig in a little deeper, we’d find that Hyde actually served as the Marlins’ acting manager on June 19, 2011 after Fredi Gonzalez resigned. Their opponent that night was none other than Joe Maddon’s Rays. Wanna add another layer to the crazy? John Mallee was the hitting coach in Miami at the time. Whoa.
So that’s all well and good, but we already knew about those moves. Will Venable being named first base coach wasn’t a move everyone necessarily saw coming (former Cub Doug Dascenzo had been a strong possibility), though the execs surely had something in mind for him when he was brought into the organization back in September. He was given the amorphous “special assistant” title at the time, but his background spoke of more.
Venable starred on both the diamond and the basketball court at Princeton and was manning centerfield in San Diego when Jed Hoyer was the Padres GM. While first base coach isn’t necessarily the most glamorous position, it’s a way for Venable to build his resume and get a little coaching experience.
Now let’s get to the big one. Drumroll, please…Jim Benedict has been named Special Assistant to Baseball Operations. Hey, there’s that indeterminate title again, the kind typically reserved for former players who want to stay around the game without having to really do anything. But while Benedict is a former player, this hiring is anything but throwing a guy a bone.
After pitching in the minors for three seasons in the mid-80’s, Benedict coached collegiately for a few years before becoming a scout for the Rangers in 1990. He was a pro scout with the Yankees for a while, then moved to the Indians organization for a couple seasons, and then on to the Pirates for seven years. While in Pittsburgh, Benedict served as both minor league pitching coordinator and — you’ll never believe this — Special Assistant to the General Manager.
Are you seeing a pattern emerging here yet? Maybe it’ll help to know that the 56-year-old Benedict spent the last two years as Vice President, Pitching Development for the Marlins.
So let’s run down what we know: Former pitcher; longtime scout; pitching coordinator; front office assistant; VP of pitching development. And that’s just the surface stuff. Add in the work in both the AL and NL, with teams of all manner of market sizes and financial wherewithal, and you’ve got the perfect fit for what the Cubs are trying to do.
And in case you’ve been under a rock for a very long time, what the Cubs are trying to do is develop some homegrown pitching for once. Their early emphasis on bats yielded an incredible crop of young hitters, but now the organization is pivoting to pitching in an effort to balance both talent and payroll over the next few years. Some of that could be a matter of MLB’s shifting supply and demand, more is the reality that the Cubs’ model is unsustainable in its current form.
It’s easy to buy pitching when your hitters are all pulling minimum salaries or just getting into arbitration. Once those guys start coming up for extensions, however, you’d better have some cheap young pitchers waiting in the wings. And that means not only drafting arms, but developing them properly. The latter is actually even more important given the manner in which pitchers mature and hone their craft.
Dubbed a “master of preparation” and a “pitcher whisperer,” Benedict may just be the right locksmith to finally help the Cubs jimmy open the one door that has yet to open for them. I don’t want to shortchange Hickey in this, but Benedict is a fantastic get and should really set the tone from the front office on down when it comes to pitching. And that, friends, could be huge.