Jesse Rogers, ESPN Staff WriterNov 7, 2023, 07:43 PM ET
- Jesse joined ESPN Chicago in September 2009 and covers MLB for ESPN.com.
PHOENIX — While Chicago Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said firing David Ross was a “very hard decision,” he called the move to bring Craig Counsell on board “the best thing for the fan base.”
Hoyer, speaking at the general managers meetings in Scottsdale, Arizona, on Tuesday, said the idea began to grow on him last month as Counsell was entertaining offers elsewhere — including returning to the Milwaukee Brewers. The Cubs swept in as soon as his contract with Milwaukee ran out Oct. 31, signing him to a five-year, $40 million deal, sources told ESPN’s Jeff Passan.
“It just felt like an exceptionally hard decision but one that I felt like I had to make if the opportunity was there,” Hoyer said. “My job is to figure out how to win as many games as we can in the short term and the long term, and there was nothing about this move that I felt like didn’t meet that criteria.”
Hoyer indicated the circle was very small as the team explored the possibility of replacing Ross with Counsell. Only a few members of the organization even knew it was a possibility, including owner Tom Ricketts. The Cubs made the same kind of move a decade ago when they hired Joe Maddon to replace Rick Renteria but Ross was a much bigger part of the organization than Renteria ever was. He helped the team to a World Series victory as a player in 2016, then was handpicked to replace Maddon in 2019.
Now he’s suddenly gone despite an 83-win season.
“This is no knock on Rossy, who I think incredibly highly of, but Craig is at the very top of the game,” Hoyer said. “It’s hard to rank managers but he’s at the top of the game.”
Hoyer’s appreciation of Counsell began around 2017 as the Cubs battled the lesser-manned Brewers for the NL Central crown. Chicago eventually won out, but Milwaukee continued to make strides, overtaking the Cubs in 2018 by beating them in Game No. 163 — while winning their final eight contests. In 2019, the Brewers secured a wild-card spot while the Cubs missed the postseason. Then in 2021 and 2023, once again, Milwaukee made the playoffs while the Cubs were retooling.
The team hopes to capitalize on that ability of Counsell to get the most out of a roster as he did in many of those years when the Brewers payroll was below league average. Hoyer referenced former football coach Bum Phillips’ description of Bear Bryant in assessing Counsell’s abilities.
“He’ll take his and beat yours and he’ll take yours and beat his,” Hoyer said. “Consistently, they’ve outperformed expectations.”
Hoyer was also asked about Counsell’s lack of postseason success: The Brewers never made a World Series under him, getting to the NLCS just one time.
“The greatest sign of a really good manager is his ability to navigate the marathon,” Hoyer said. “I think the sprint is really hard. I know that’s how managers make the Hall of Fame, by winning World Series, but I do think what’s happened over a dozen or so games [should not] overshadow all those good seasons.”
Counsell’s ability to max out a roster might be even more important in the new, three wild-card team era. Hoyer pointed out that over the past four full seasons, the lowest seed in the NL made the World Series each year, including the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2023. Getting into the playoffs could be as important as ever and the Cubs simply believe leaving wins on the table is less likely with Counsell.
Chicago missed the postseason this year despite a plus-96 run differential, higher than the playoff-bound Brewers.
“He’s unbelievably sharp,” Hoyer said of Counsell. “His sense of what his job entails and the responsibility of his job stood out to me. This guy wants to handle every singular part of the process and views that as his responsibility. The way he views the totality of everything as his responsibility.”
Hoyer also addressed Counsell’s payday. Chicago made him the highest-paid manager on an annual basis since Joe Torre’s days with the Yankees well over a decade ago. It’s a position that has seen a salary decline over time — even World Series manager Bruce Bochy makes about half of what Counsell will earn.
“It’s an incredibly difficult people management position,” Hoyer explained. “It’s an incredibly difficult strategic position and even more so now with all the information. And you’re the face of the franchise more than any one player because your demeanor and personality and comments show up 324 times a season. That’s really hard. When a guy does it at an exceptional level it makes sense to pay him well.”
While the Cubs are likely to explore the deep end of the free agent pool, including the group of pitchers coming over from Japan — and will be active in the trade market as well — the signing of Counsell isn’t an indication that they’re ready to win the winter.
“I don’t think we signaled that we’re going to have some crazy aggressive offseason,” Hoyer said. “If there are big moves that will help us continue that trajectory we’ll definitely do it but I don’t think it’s a signal somehow we’re going to have the biggest and boldest offseason. If we do, it’s because things lined up for us.”
Asked if he was going to meet with representatives of free agent Shohei Ohtani this week, Hoyer responded, “No comment.”
He was still recovering from a whirlwind 24 hours that saw him fly to Florida to deliver the news to Ross in person, then to Arizona to begin the offseason meetings.
“There was a suddenness to all this that was unavoidable but unfortunate,” Hoyer said of replacing Ross. “I think the world of him. I think he has an amazingly bright future. He’ll land on his feet and have a great career in this game for a long time.
“If it’s a really hard decision and I’m willing to make it, it feels like I’m doing the right thing for the organization.”