SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Cubs manager Jed Hoyer has always admired Craig Counsell from afar. In his view, the manager has no weakness. Hoyer watched Counsell continue to bulk up a Milwaukee Brewers roster that didn’t look like the best in the division on paper, but continued to win.
Hoyer saw Counsel as someone who mastered the game’s moves, consistently held his clubhouse together and handled the media with gusto. It was, in the Cubs’ eyes, the best manager in the game.
But Hoyer understood that the consultant was well-liked and that he was not eager to make a management change with his team. David Rose and Theo Epstein are the man hand-picked to follow future Hall of Famer Joe Maddon, who helped end more than a century of misery in the North with the 2016 World Series. Council was already expected to be locked in on Nov. 1, when he officially becomes a free agent. Hoyer had no intention of pursuing him before that date. He had a feeling New York would not be Counsell’s final destination, as family reasons would keep him rooted to the Midwest, but he thought Counsell would return to Milwaukee.
This change did not occur due to some tension between Ross and Hoyer. But as November approached and the council was on the market, Hoyer’s interest was piqued. An opportunity to make significant progress in a significant area presented itself and Hoyer jumped at it. On November 1, he reached out, and the council came to the Chicagoland area to meet with Hoyer. The last thing Hoyer wanted was for any of this to go public, for the council to end up elsewhere and for Ross to find out. That would create the kind of friction between a manager and the head of baseball operations that would be unacceptable.
To make sure it was quiet, Hoyer was the only one to meet with Counsell, very few people in the front office knew about the meeting, and according to a league source, Counsell never came to the Cubs’ offices near Wrigley Field. The two had communicated very little before meeting on November 1, but quickly hit it off and talked deeply into the night.
In the coming days, Counsell will meet with the New York Mets and Cleveland Guardians while staying in touch with the Brewers. On Saturday evening, Hoyer was confident they were close financially and a deal would be done. By Sunday morning, the deal was done. Hoyer 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 set a new standard for executive compensation while staying close to the 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 in some staff and players to deliver the news, and word quickly spread throughout the team.
Part of the reason the Cubs hired Rose four years ago was because they felt Maddon wasn’t adding to the roster, and Rose had ways to better impact the team on the sidelines. Meanwhile, in Milwaukee, Counsell always seemed to get more out of a seemingly inferior roster than what he and Theo Epstein put together with the Cubs.
Now Hoyer leads his team as that difference-maker. However there are questions. The Cubs roster was good enough to win 83 games last year and with Marcus Stroman and Cody Bellinger headed into free agency, the team is now extremely weak.
While the Cubs will be active this winter, spending big on consulting shouldn’t be read as a guarantee that they’ll beat the competition in free agency. Improvements are needed and moves will be made. But Council was sold on a team that was improving quickly and would continue to do so during the course of his contract, not on the idea that the Cubs would 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 a major league team, and significant financial flexibility. While they’ll flex that financial muscle in the coming years, they don’t expect to win many bidding wars this winter in what’s seen as a weak free-agent class, especially on the position player side.
How the consultant designs the training staff should also be determined. Many coaches are under contract for next year and beyond. It is hoped that the councilor will retain his majority. Pitching coach Tommy Hattovy is considered one of the best in the business, and after Dustin Kelly had success with the players in his first year, the Cubs finally found some consistency in their hitting coach.
But there may be deviations by those loyal to Ross. Council has a long history with Pat Murphy as his bench coach in Milwaukee. Murphy was a managing consultant at Notre Dame and has a history with Hoyer, who hired Murphy as a special assistant early in his two-year tenure as San Diego Padres GM. Murphy is a candidate to replace Counsell as manager in Milwaukee, but could find himself in Chicago if he doesn’t land the job.
All of that — how the roster will pan out and who will be on the final coaching staff — remains unknown. It’s clear that Hoyer and the Cubs have sent a message about their team’s trajectory. They were poached from one of their main rivals and added baseball’s best manager to lead a growing team.
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(Top image: John Fisher / Getty Images)