SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The shock isn’t over yet. Craig Counsell’s decision to leave the Milwaukee Brewers for the Chicago Cubs on Monday establishes a new salary standard for managers, exposes the ugly side of the baseball business and made the Wisconsin native a former favorite. He was made an outcast in the area where he was once treated as an outcast. Other than that, it was a completely normal day for a manager.
The most surprising thing is not that Counsell left the Brewers, a move that had been in the works for months, but that he left for the team’s biggest rival rather than the New York Mets or Cleveland Guardians. . Counsell knew Milwaukee fans would be furious that he was heading to Chicago. Considering the younger brother/older brother power relationship between the two cities. Anyway, he got it done.
The Cubs, on the other hand, knew that firing David Ross to hire counsel would be far more disturbing than their decision to fire Rick Renteria for Joe Maddon in 2014. Ross wasn’t the standard-issue coach the front office inherited. He was an integral part of the Cubs’ 2016 World Series championship team and was the Cubs’ hand-picked choice to replace Maddon. And they fired him anyway.
The lawyer had a reason. The Cubs had a reason. The Mets also had their own reasons for hiring former Yankees bench coach Carlos Mendoza as their first manager without Counsell’s full efforts. Which of these three clubs did he make the best decision on, and which did he least? It may take years to find out the answer. But my first thought is:
Under Ross, the Cubs have fallen short of where they were last season. Under Counsel, the Brewers almost always overperformed. So if you’re Jed Hoyer, the Cubs’ president of baseball operations, you understand Counsell’s appeal.
The rift between the two managers worsened when the Cubs collapsed in September. On September 6, the Cubs edged the Brewers by just 1.5 games in the NL Central Division, earning them the second wild card spot in the NL Central Division. The rest of the way they finished with a record of 83 wins and 79 losses with 7 wins and 15 losses, leaving them nine games behind first place and one game behind the Diamondbacks for the final wild card spot.
Part of that is due to Hoyer’s failure to properly shore up the Cubs’ bullpen at the trade deadline. However, the Cubs’ expected record based on point differential was 90 wins and 72 losses. The seven-win deficit was the third-largest in the majors behind the Padres (-10) and Royals (-8). Coach Hoyer reiterated Tuesday what he said at the end of the season. “We left behind a victory.”
In the view of industry insiders who were granted anonymity in exchange for candor, Ross’ biggest flaw was that he rode too hard on some of his patrons. Left fielder Ian Happ played in 158 games and second baseman Nico Horner played in 150 games. Center fielder/first baseman Cody Bellinger played in 93 of 95 games after returning from a left knee contusion on June 15. Shortstop Dansby Swanson played in 64 of 65 games after returning from injury. I bruised my left heel on July 22nd.
Coach Ross is in his fourth season and first time managing a contender. He was well-liked by the players. He still had room to grow. But his acquisition of Counsel creates an opportunity for the Cubs that may never come again. Hoyer’s job is to put his team in the best possible position to win. The five-year, $40 million contract he gave Counsell was both a betrayal of his old manager and a sign of confidence in his new manager. But it was all so unpleasant. That’s also unpleasant.
Owner Mark Attanasio’s bitter lament over Counsell’s departure, “Craig lost us, we lost our community,” was unnecessary. The entire industry knew what Counsel meant. He wanted to use his experience as an active member of the players’ association to end the stagnation in salaries for top managers.
Attanasio said he offered to make Counsel the highest-paid manager “both season-wise and total package.” But he didn’t make nearly enough suggestions. And Counsell’s new average annual salary of $8 million is slightly less than what the Braves received from Joe Jimenez on his new three-year, $26 million contract.
“I needed and wanted a new professional challenge,” Counsell told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Tuesday. This leads to another important part of the equation, which Attanasio is at least partially responsible for. The Cubs are in a better position than the Brewers to be a force in the near future, especially now that Milwaukee has to replace Counsel.
The Brewers’ starting pitching, their greatest strength, is on the verge of collapse. Right-handers Corbin Burnes and Brandon Woodruff are entering their four-ball years, as is shortstop Willie Adames. Woodruff, who underwent surgery last month to repair the anterior capsule in his throwing shoulder, may already pitch in his final game in Milwaukee. The Brewers must decide whether to offer him a contract with a salary in the $12 million range, knowing he may not return until the second half of next season.
The future is not completely bleak. The Brewers’ major league roster includes a number of young, athletic position players. Outfielder Jackson Cholio, 19, is one of the game’s top prospects. Catcher Jefferson Cuello and third baseman Tyler Black are also improving, but the team as a whole may be starting to decline. Counsell doesn’t have to go through a potential rebuild with the Cubs. Talent is better. The same goes for resources.
The possibility of a marriage between Counsell and Mets hinged on two questions. Did new president of baseball operations David Stearns prefer a manager who could emulate his former Brewers manager? And, perhaps more importantly, did Counsell want to leave his Midwestern roots for New York?
It was reported that Stearns and Mets owner Steve Cohen were not satisfied that the answer to the latter question was “yes” and offered considerably less counseling than the Cubs. The AthleticThis is Will Sammon. As it turns out, Counsel’s decision wasn’t much of a decision. He valued proximity to his home in Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin, and also valued the Cubs’ $40 million.
The Mets may regret not trying harder. There’s always a risk being a first-time major league manager, especially a first-time manager in New York. The Mets’ two managers before Buck Showalter, first-timer Mickey Callaway and Luis Rojas, both lasted just two seasons. But prior to Stearns’ arrival, their tenure ended in failure.
Mendoza, a bilingual native of Venezuela who served as the Yankees’ bench coach for the past four seasons under manager Aaron Boone, is highly regarded in the industry for a first-time manager. The Guardians were certainly impressed. They seriously considered Mendoza before hiring Steven Vogt.
“I can’t tell you how much feedback I got from everyone who interviewed with him was, “I can’t believe this guy hasn’t gotten a manager’s job yet.” “Is this real?” Yankees GM Brian said. Cashman told reporters Tuesday. “He has structure. He has process. He knows the basics of the game. He’s been running our major league spring training for years.”
All managers have to start somewhere. Four of the six finalists for AL and NL Manager of the Year awards — Counsell, Marlins’ Skip Shoemaker, Ray’s Kevin Cash and Orioles’ Brandon Mr. Hyde–is or had his first job in the major leagues. Boone was once a beginner, too. And despite all the criticism he endured, he averaged 99 wins in his first full season.
It’s never easy to predict these things. Perhaps Mendoza will be the next manager’s star. Perhaps Counsell will prove to be less of a game-changer than the Cubs imagine. Perhaps Ross will reappear with another club to prove Hoyer wrong.
The shock will wear off. The game begins. And as always, the results will reveal which team made the best selection.
(Craig Counsell top photo: Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)