The more Craig Counsell explained his decision to join the Chicago Cubs, the more it sounded like it didn’t matter what the Milwaukee Brewers offered him to stay. It was the same restlessness that drove Theo Epstein away from the Boston Red Sox. It was the same attraction to the spotlight that led Joe Maddon to leave the Tampa Bay Rays. It was the same desire for more money, more power and World Series glory.
The more Counsell explained his philosophy during Monday’s introductory news conference, the more he sounded like Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer, who shook up the baseball industry by closing a five-year, $40 million deal with Counsell and firing manager David Ross. Epstein and Hoyer are supposed to sound alike because they both grew up in New England around the same time and worked together for so many years in Boston and Chicago. That history and friendship helped mask their disagreements.
But Counsell talked like someone who had a corner office in the Wrigley Field complex since it opened as part of the $1 billion neighborhood development. This is the current language of baseball executives, Counsell echoing Hoyer when he made the analogy of building a strong roster by stacking good decisions with a brick-by-brick approach. Counsell pointing to the overall health of the organization and the range of choices that it creates is the same terminology Hoyer used to explain so many big decisions in recent years.
“Player development does not stop when it gets to the big leagues,” Counsell said in yet another example of a pattern that Marquee Sports Network could have turned into a drinking game.
It didn’t matter that Counsell and Hoyer were both guarded when they first sat down at Hoyer’s North Shore home in the Chicago suburbs for an exploratory meeting. Certain information couldn’t be shared because Hoyer didn’t know which team Counsell would choose and the Cubs already employed a manager who was working on 2024 plans. But Counsell’s experience as a special assistant to Brewers general manager Doug Melvin — from 2012 until his promotion to manager during the 2015 season — helps him see the big picture.
Maddon is a unique character who had the perfect blend of ego, experience and humor for that moment in 2015 and 2016. The Cubs don’t need to bring back the zoo animals or another magician. But when Maddon inherited the game’s No. 1 farm system and a championship drought that started in 1908, he took pressure off young players by entertaining and distracting the media. Maddon encouraged those young players to be themselves, take risks on the field and perform with little fear of making mistakes.
Though it may lack the star power of the Kris Bryant/Kyle Schwarber/Javier Báez era, the Cubs again have a top farm system that should provide major-league depth and impact. Internal scouting will be crucial as the Cubs evaluate deals and decide which prospects to build around. Refining that young talent at Wrigley Field will be essential. As much as Counsell gets credit for organizing a bullpen and pushing the right in-game buttons, this is another area where the Cubs believe he will be a difference-maker.
“He’s got the feel of a manager, but he can also think along with a front office,” Hoyer said. “He understands the analytics and that’s a real strength. Clearly, in Milwaukee, they did a really good job of playing a lot of young players, being flexible with the roster, so his experiences there molded that. You can’t win like that in a small market without relying on young players.”
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That should not be interpreted as the Cubs hired Counsell to operate as if he was still running a small-market team. Counsell wants the freedom and the resources that Maddon enjoyed, all the possibilities that Andrew Friedman encountered when he left the Rays to run the Los Angeles Dodgers. But the best organizations maintain a steady supply of homegrown talent.
“After you go through cycles of players, you start to learn how hard the transition is to the major leagues for players,” Counsell said. “The norm is a massive struggle, (so) you come at it from that place. The problem is that expectations for those players are on the other side of the spectrum. That’s a hard thing for everybody to balance. It’s a hard thing for a manager trying to win a game to balance. It’s a hard thing for the fans to balance. It’s a hard thing for all player development staff that work so hard to help get a player there. Most of all, it’s hard for a player.
“Trying to create some empathy there and some understanding with that for the players and for the group — all of us — is probably the most important thing to do.”
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“Empathy” is another buzzword from the old “Cubs Way” handbook. Ross’ insights as a former catcher helped Justin Steele become an All-Star pitcher. Ross’ encouragement helped Nico Hoerner become a major-league shortstop and a Gold Glove second baseman. Ross’ timeout helped Christopher Morel become a dangerous hitter again.
But a September collapse overshadowed the improvements the Cubs made to go from 74 wins in 2022 to 83 wins this year. The Arizona Diamondbacks, a young, 84-win team that went 6-1 against the Cubs in September, advanced to the World Series in October. That failure gnawed at Hoyer as the Brewers and Counsell drifted apart.
Ross trusted the guys who dragged the Cubs into playoff contention and recognized that delicate balance in the clubhouse. Ross also wanted Jordan Wicks to be moved from Triple-A Iowa into the major-league rotation, which proved to be a good idea. Ross still has the stature and charisma needed to connect with players.
Pete Crow-Armstrong did not look ready for a postseason-type atmosphere yet. Alexander Canario was coming off two significant injuries and making his major-league debut. Luke Little will have to earn high-leverage opportunities out of the bullpen. But the way the Cubs crashed at the end of the season left the manager open to even more second-guessing.
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That’s Counsell’s responsibility now, to evaluate a cluster of minor-league hitters that includes Matt Shaw, James Triantos, Kevin Alcántara, Owen Caissie and Moises Ballesteros. Counsell will have to sift through the pitching options — such as Cade Horton, Ben Brown, Hayden Wesneski and Javier Assad — and define their roles. The Cubs added three pitchers to their 40-man roster — Bailey Horn, Porter Hodge and Michael Arias — before Tuesday’s deadline to protect eligible players from the Rule 5 draft.
The highest-paid manager in baseball has to create the right environment to help them to succeed.
“The goal (is) the player doesn’t have so much on his chest coming to the park every day,” Counsell said, “knowing he has to do everything for everybody. Because that’s what he feels like, so it’s a process for those players. It’s essentially one of time and support to get him to a good place.”
(Top photo: Matt Dirksen / Chicago Cubs / Getty Images)