SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Cubs team president Jed Hoyer has always admired Craig Counsell from afar. From his vantage point, the manager had no weaknesses. Hoyer watched as Counsell continually maximized a Milwaukee Brewers roster that never seemed to be the best in the division in terms of on-paper talent, yet kept winning.
Hoyer saw Counsell as someone who excelled with in-game moves, consistently held his clubhouse together and handled the media with aplomb. This was, in the Cubs’ view, the best manager in the game.
But Hoyer also understood that Counsell was highly sought after and he wasn’t eager to make a managerial change with his team. David Ross was the man he and Theo Epstein hand-picked to succeed future Hall of Famer Joe Maddon, the manager who helped end more than a century of misery on the North Side with the 2016 World Series. The expectation was that Counsell would already be locked up come Nov. 1, when Counsell would officially become a free agent. Hoyer had no intention of pursuing him prior to that date. He had an inkling that New York wouldn’t be Counsell’s ultimate destination because of family reasons rooting him to the Midwest, but he figured Counsell would just return to Milwaukee.
This change didn’t happen because of some simmering tension between Ross and Hoyer. But as November neared and Counsell remained on the market, Hoyer’s interest was piqued. An opportunity to improve markedly in a significant area presented itself and Hoyer pounced. On Nov. 1, he reached out and Counsell came to the Chicagoland area to meet with Hoyer. The last thing Hoyer wanted was for any of this to go public, Counsell to end up elsewhere and for Ross to find out. That would create the type of friction between a manager and head of baseball operations that would likely be untenable.
To ensure that this stayed quiet, Hoyer was the only person to meet with Counsell, very few people in the front office were aware of the meeting, and Counsell never came to the Cubs offices adjacent to Wrigley Field, according to a league source. The two had very little interaction prior to that meeting on Nov. 1, but seemed to hit it off quickly and talked deep into the night.
In the coming days, Counsell would meet with the New York Mets and Cleveland Guardians while staying in contact with the Brewers. Late Saturday evening, Hoyer was optimistic that they were close on the financials and a deal would be made. By Sunday morning, the deal was done. Hoyer had poached the best manager in the game from a division rival, and by agreeing to a five-year deal worth more than $40 million, Counsell had set a new level for managerial compensation while also remaining close to family.
Hoyer immediately booked a flight to Florida to meet with Ross in Tallahassee. The two had a long and at times tense conversation, during which general manager Carter Hawkins called some staff and players to deliver the news, and word quickly spread throughout the team.
Part of the reason the Cubs hired Ross four years ago was because they felt Maddon wasn’t maximizing the roster, and that there were ways Ross could better impact the team on the margins. Meanwhile, in Milwaukee, Counsell seemed to always get the most out of a seemingly inferior roster to the one he and Theo Epstein had put together with the Cubs.
Now Hoyer has that difference-maker helming his team. Questions remain, though. The Cubs roster was only good enough to win 83 games last year and with Marcus Stroman and Cody Bellinger headed for free agency, the team looks much weaker right now.
While the Cubs will be active this winter, spending big on Counsell shouldn’t be read as a guarantee that they’ll blow out the competition in free agency. Improvements are needed and moves will be made. But Counsell was sold on a team that is rapidly improving and will continue to do so over the course of his contract, not on the idea that the Cubs will build a behemoth in one winter.
The Cubs have a strong MLB roster, a ton of young talent in their farm system on the verge of impacting the big-league team, and significant financial flexibility. While they will flex those financial muscles over the coming years, the expectation isn’t that they’ll be winning multiple bidding wars this winter in what’s largely viewed as a weaker free-agent class, especially on the position player side
How Counsell will shape the coaching staff is to be determined as well. Many of the coaches are under contract for next year and beyond. The hope is that the majority will be retained by Counsell. Pitching coach Tommy Hottovy is viewed as one of the best in the business, and the Cubs seemed to finally find some stability at hitting coach after Dustin Kelly had success connecting with players in his first year on the job.
But there could be defections by those who are loyal to Ross. Counsell has a long history with his bench coach in Milwaukee, Pat Murphy. Murphy managed Counsell at Notre Dame and also has a history with Hoyer, who hired Murphy as a special assistant early in his two-year stint as San Diego Padres GM. Murphy is a candidate to replace Counsell as manager in Milwaukee, but could also find himself in Chicago were he not to land that job.
All of that — how the roster will shake out and who will be on the final coaching staff — is still unknown. What is clear is that Hoyer and the Cubs have sent a message about the trajectory of their team. They’ve poached from one of their chief rivals and added arguably the best manager in baseball to lead a group that’s on the rise and should contend for years to come.
Greenberg: Cubs take Sammy Sosa-like swing by hiring Craig Counsell to replace David Ross
(Top photo: John Fisher / Getty Images)