By Patrick Mooney, Sahadev Sharma, Ken Rosenthal and Tyler Kepner
In a calculating move that stunned the baseball world, the Chicago Cubs are hiring Craig Counsell to replace David Ross, the club announced Monday, instantly raising the expectations at Wrigley Field.
The Cubs will give Counsell a five-year contract worth more than $40 million, according to major-league sources, making him the highest-paid manager in Major League Baseball.
Counsell, who guided the Milwaukee Brewers to the playoffs in five of the last six seasons, was widely assumed to be choosing between staying home in Wisconsin or taking on a new challenge with the New York Mets. A final decision was expected this week during MLB’s general manager meetings in Arizona. But the Cubs have done this before.
President of baseball operations Jed Hoyer was involved in one of these stealth pursuits as Theo Epstein’s general manager. When Joe Maddon became a free agent after the 2014 season, the Cubs executives didn’t hesitate. Knowing the talent in the organization and the resources at their disposal, the Cubs fired Rick Renteria after only one season. Signing Maddon to a five-year contract immediately paid off with 97 wins in 2015 and a 2016 World Series title.
Hoyer must believe that Counsell’s small-market success will translate the way it did for Maddon after his run with the Tampa Bay Rays. The Brewers chasing down the Cubs in 2018 — and winning Game 163 at Wrigley Field — became one of those moments that turned up the heat on Maddon and foreshadowed the end of that championship group.
Initially hired to squeeze more out of former teammates such as Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Javier Báez, Ross faced unthinkable challenges as a rookie manager during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. The Cubs managed to win a division title and then went into an extreme cost-cutting mode, trading Yu Darvish to the San Diego Padres that winter and executing sell-offs at the next two trade deadlines.
The scrutiny on in-game decisions increased exponentially this year after the Cubs committed more than $300 million to free agents. Ross is viewed as a strong communicator who commands respect from players. His steady personality helped the Cubs dig out from 10 games under .500 in June and force the front office to add at the trade deadline this time. Hoyer raved about the team’s preparation and consistent effort.
In what was supposed to be a transition year, the Cubs won 83 games, played an entertaining style of baseball and remained in playoff contention until the final weekend of the season. During Game 162 in Milwaukee, Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts praised Ross as “a great manager” and declared: “He’s our guy.”
As Jon Lester’s personal catcher, Ross helped end the 108-year World Series drought. After retiring as a player, Ross worked with Epstein and Hoyer as a special assistant in the front office. Ross built up so many connections — and showed enough promise as a manager — that it seemed harder to give him the Renteria treatment.
Ross, though, couldn’t hold onto his job after an epic September collapse and one of the sport’s best managers becoming a free agent. The Cubs-Brewers rivalry will now go to an entirely new level.
“Today we made the difficult decision to dismiss David Ross,” Hoyer said in a statement. “On behalf of the Cubs organization, we express our deep gratitude for David’s contributions to our club, both on and off the field. First as a player and then as a manager, David continually showcased his ability to lead. David’s legacy will be felt in Chicago for generations and his impact to our organization will stack up with the legends that came before him.”
With his contract, Counsell reaches a new level that’s important to the manager, who was heavily involved with the MLB Players Association during his 16-year playing career.
“Having represented Craig Counsell for almost 30 years and having lived in Chicago all my life, I am thrilled to see Craig embracing a new challenge,” Counsell’s agent, Barry Meister of Meister Sports Management, said in a statement. “Cubs fans are getting a terrific manager and an even better person. Craig has great admiration and respect for the Brewers ownership, general manager and fans and for all of Milwaukee, where he makes his home. He will retain lifelong friends and memories made as part of the Brewer family. He is excited about Chicago and is happy that multiple teams have begun to embrace the enhanced valuation of the job of major-league manager!”
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How Cubs players are responding to the move
This move obviously has come as a shock to the baseball world, but Cubs players themselves were taken aback by the hiring as well. The clubhouse had Ross’ back, even after a September collapse that led to them falling short of the playoffs and allowed the blame to be spread. But none of the players were willing to point that finger at Ross.
At the end of the day, they saw him as someone who had their backs and was a positive influence in his ability to keep the team together during really rough patches. But there was an awareness that Ross didn’t move the needle. His in-game tactics were sometimes questioned and much of that fell to bench coach Andy Green. — Sahadev Sharma, Cubs writer
Questions on the Cubs’ coaching staff
Beyond how this happened and what comes next in terms of roster-building, much of the questions now go to whether the coaching staff will largely remain intact. The Cubs have long lauded pitching coach Tommy Hottovy’s work. Both the front office and players believe he’s one of the best in the game at his job. The Cubs finally seemed to find stability with hitting coach Dustin Kelly overseeing an offense that was among the most productive in the game this past season.
Green interviewed for a pair of managing jobs, neither of which he ultimately landed, but will he remain the bench coach for Counsell? Veteran coach John Mallee was recently promoted to the big-league staff after a year as Triple A hitting coach. All that seems up in the air right now as the Cubs make a dramatic and unexpected shift with the face of their team. — Sharma
What was Counsell’s mindset before free agency?
When I spoke to Counsell in September about the Brewers’ consistent success, he was clearly curious about where he would stand in the marketplace for managers. “I’m not under contract,” he noted, “so if other people ask, I’m not going to ignore it.”
Considering Milwaukee’s status as the smallest market in the majors, owner Mark Attanasio had funded competitive payrolls. But I wondered if the team’s spending limitations would be a factor for Counsell in determining his future. That is, did he think the club could truly compete for a championship — and if not, would he want out?
“I don’t know if that would ever be the principal (reason) that would make you say you want to leave,” he said. “I don’t think that’s it, because that’s the whole point of why we’re talking is that you don’t have to (spend lavishly) to win. That’s not what you need, necessarily. I know that a smaller market has not won recently; a bunch of them have put themselves in a position to do it. But I mean, only one team gets to say they won. Most teams are going to lament that they couldn’t do it.”
By October, the Brewers were lamenting once again. Milwaukee has won at least 86 games in each of the past six 162-game seasons, something only the Dodgers and Astros can match, but still hasn’t won a pennant. Counsell has deep ties to his hometown team, but also has a history as a union representative in his playing days. A five-year, $40 million contract from the rival Cubs proved to be impossible to turn down. — Tyler Kepner, senior MLB writer
What does it mean for Brewers?
It feels like a turning point for the Brewers. With one of their top starting pitchers, Brandon Woodruff, possibly lost for 2024 after shoulder surgery, it might be only a matter of time before another, Corbin Burnes, also moves on.
Burnes is facing free agency after the 2024 season and teams will certainly make trade offers to general manager Matt Arnold. The Brewers already started cutting payroll by trading outfielder Mark Canha to Detroit over the weekend, and only one player is signed for more than $6 million next season (Christian Yelich, at more than $24 million).
Milwaukee has a promising farm system and a bunch of athletic, speedy defenders. But this is a team whose .385 slugging percentage was second-worst in the National League — ahead of only the Giants — and it would take a lot of money to give this roster a realistic shot at a championship.
The Brewers have resisted the full-scale teardowns of other small-market teams, but there’s little sign that they plan to suddenly become big spenders. — Kepner
What is Counsell’s legacy with Brewers?
It’s a powerful one: With a 707-625 record from 2015 to 2023, Counsell is the winningest manager in club history. The team has reached the playoffs nine times since it arrived in Milwaukee in 1970, and Counsell has managed five of those teams. He guided the Brewers to within one victory of the World Series in 2018, falling to the Dodgers in a seven-game NLCS.
Counsell was associated with the Brewers’ other four playoff teams, too — as a fan in the 1980s, when his father, John, worked for the team, and as a player in 2008 and 2011. Counsell attended Whitefish Bay High School and has raised his family in the community. But he’s won his championship rings elsewhere (with the Marlins and Diamondbacks as a player), and now heads out of town again to pursue another. — Kepner
- What we’re hearing about the Chicago Cubs ahead of the GM meetings
- What’s next for Craig Counsell? FAQs as Brewers, Guardians, Mets remain in play
- Rosenthal: Brewers manager Craig Counsell could be one of the biggest free agents this offseason
(Photo: Brandon Sloter / Getty Images)