SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Cubs team president Jed Hoyer has always admired Craig Counsell from afar. From his point of view, the manager had no weaknesses. Hoyer watched Counsell continually maximize a Milwaukee Brewers roster that never looked like the best in the division in terms of talent on paper, but kept winning.
Hoyer viewed Counsell as someone who excelled in the movements of the game, who consistently held his club together and handled the media with aplomb. He was, according to the Cubs, the best manager in the game.
But Hoyer also understood that Counsell was highly sought after and was not eager to make a change in direction on his team. David Ross was the man he and Theo Epstein chose 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. expected that Counsell would already be incarcerated on November 1, when Counsell would officially become a free agent. Hoyer had no intention of prosecuting him before then. He was under the impression that New York would not be Counsell’s final destination due to family reasons rooting him in the Midwest, but he thought Counsell would simply return to Milwaukee.
This change did not occur due to some simmering tension between Ross and Hoyer. But as November approached and Counsell remained on the market, Hoyer’s interest was piqued. An opportunity to significantly improve in an important area presented itself and Hoyer pounced. On November 1, he reached out and Counsell came to the Chicago area to meet with Hoyer. The last thing Hoyer wanted was for this to become public, for Counsell to end up somewhere else, and for Ross to find out. That would create a type of friction between a manager and the head of baseball operations that would likely be untenable.
To ensure it remained quiet, Hoyer was the only person to meet with Counsell, very few people at the front desk knew about the meeting and Counsell never came to the Cubs offices adjacent to Wrigley Field, according to a source of the league. The two men had very little interaction before that November 1 meeting, but seemed to hit it off quickly and talked late into the night.
In the coming days, Counsell would meet with the New York Mets and Cleveland Guardians while remaining in contact with the Brewers. Late Saturday night, Hoyer was optimistic that they were close to financial results and that a deal would be reached. By Sunday morning, the deal was done. Hoyer had poached the game’s best manager from a division rival, and in agreeing to a five-year contract worth more than $40 million, Counsell had established a new level of executive compensation while remaining close from his family.
Hoyer immediately booked a flight to Florida to meet Ross in Tallahassee. The two had a long and sometimes tense conversation, during which general manager Carter Hawkins called some staff members and players to tell them the news, and the news 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 influence the team on the margins. Meanwhile, in Milwaukee, Counsell still seemed to get the most out of a seemingly inferior roster than the one he and Theo Epstein put together with the Cubs.
Today, Hoyer has what makes the difference at the head of his team. Questions remain, however. The Cubs roster was just good enough to win 83 games last year and with Marcus Stroman and Cody Bellinger heading to free agency, the team looks a lot weaker right now.
Even though the Cubs will be active this winter, spending big on Counsell should not be interpreted as a guarantee that they will eliminate competition in free agency. Improvements are needed and action will be taken. But Counsell was sold on a team that is rapidly improving and will continue to do so throughout his contract, not the idea that the Cubs will build a monster in one winter.
The Cubs have a solid MLB team, a ton of young talent in their farm system poised to make an impact on the big league team, and significant financial flexibility. Although they will flex their financial muscles in the coming years, they are not expected to win multiple bidding wars this winter in what is widely considered a free agent class weaker, especially among position players.
How Counsell will shape the coaching staff also remains to be determined. Many 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 considered one of the best in the business, and the Cubs seemed to finally find some stability as a hitting coach after Dustin Kelly was able to connect with the players over the course of his first year of work.
But there could be defections from those 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 tenure as general manager of the San Diego Padres. Murphy is a candidate to replace Counsell as manager in Milwaukee, but could also end up in Chicago if he doesn’t get the job.
All of this – how the roster will evolve and who will make the final coaching staff – is still unknown. What is clear is that Hoyer and the Cubs have sent a message about their team’s trajectory. They poached one of their biggest rivals and added arguably the best manager in baseball to lead a group that is on the rise and expected to contend for years to come.
Greenberg: Cubs make Sammy Sosa move by hiring Craig Counsell to replace David Ross
(Top photo: John Fisher/Getty Images)