A grin broke across Craig Counsell’s face while putting on his pinstriped Chicago Cubs home jersey for the first time.
“It feels good,” Counsell said Monday at Wrigley Field.
The Counsell era is officially underway for the Cubs, who closed the book on David Ross’ tenure. Ross texted Counsell before the news broke last week of Counsell’s five-year, $40 million deal, prompting Counsell to immediately call Ross.
“I’ve always had great respect for David,” Counsell said. “That gave me the ultimate respect for David the way he handled the conversation. Part of this business is really difficult, it’s really cutthroat. And as a player I’ve lived it, David’s lived it, every player lives it every day. But I respect the heck out of David Ross.”
Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts spoke to Ross on Nov. 6 after President Jed Hoyer delivered the news at Ross’ home in Tallahassee, Fla.
“These decisions aren’t ever easy or to be taken lightly,” Ricketts told the Tribune on Monday. “But Jed felt like getting Craig in here would get us to the next level, and I support that 100%.”
The focus has fully shifted to 2024 and beyond as Counsell looks to get the Cubs back to the postseason, something they haven’t done over a 162-game schedule since 2018.
“I wanted the challenge of this, all this,” Counsell said Monday. “My hope is the pressure to win in Chicago is just the pressure to win in Chicago. I don’t need any more than that. That’s what it is, that’s what it should be. We should be expected to win.
“It is time to be a Cub. There is momentum happening here and it feels close. And that means there’s a really exciting future ahead of us.”
Here are four things we learned during Counsell’s introduction.
1. Jed Hoyer’s vision for the Cubs’ future sold Counsell.
Counsell said he joked with general manager Carter Hawkins before Monday’s news conference that he doesn’t know much about the Cubs.
The Cubs’ courtship of Counsell lasted less than week from when Hoyer initiated contact Nov. 1, once Counsell became a free agent, to when the Cubs fired Ross and hired the longtime Brewers manager. The fast process prevented Counsell, 53, from delving into studying the organization as he had for the New York Mets opening, for which he interviewed the day after his first conversation with Hoyer.
“I know enough about the city, the franchise, the history and just baseball in general that I know how it works,” Counsell said.
As Hoyer recruited him, he sold Counsell on the health of the organization going forward — specifically the current team, player development and how the front office is built to equip players and provide good information to make the necessary decisions.
“The excitement and where the franchise is at on a big-picture level, we’ve still got to get a lot of decisions right,” Counsell said. “But it’s a really healthy place to start.
“There’s a lot of choices of how to do it, and that’s exciting that there’s several ways to attack the problem. It offers the ability for Jed to be very creative and use any one of those means to do so. In the end, it’s going to be some blend of all that that gets it done. ... That gives him a really good chance at being right (and) of this being successful.”
2. Counsell will be deliberate in building his coaching staff.
One of Counsell’s first imprints on the organization will come through the coaches he surrounds himself with.
Now that he’s in place as manager, it leaves the status of Ross’ coaching staff in limbo. While some are expected to remain, how many will return is unknown. There isn’t a specific time frame for when Counsell wants to have his full staff in place.
He plans to be thorough in how he builds the group, and he anticipates it being a slower process. He wants to better understand whom the Cubs have on staff and what they are trying to do with their coaching staff and its infrastructure — including how the current coaches try help players, how the information that is provided helps the players and how that information is delivered. Getting to know the coaches as people is also part of the equation.
All of those facets take time to work through.
“You spend enormous amounts of time with people in close quarters, and so you do get to know people really, really well,” Counsell said. “There’s not many secrets at that point when you’re working that closely with people, and it’s just important to get to know people when you’re working in those situations.
“I want to be deliberate because it’s important and I just need to do more homework is the best way to say it. I hadn’t done homework on the Cubs. I wasn’t prepared (for them to reach out), so it’s a place where I’m behind and I think making a quicker decision is a mistake in this situation.”
The Cubs already had two openings after announcing last month that bullpen coach Chris Young and game strategy and catching coach Craig Driver would not return in 2024.
3. What Counsell’s hiring means to the Cubs’ approach to free agency.
The Cubs possess the financial means to be among the most aggressive teams in free agency and go above the luxury-tax threshold if needed.
Hiring Counsell is a clear sign they are in go mode for their competitive window, though that doesn’t necessarily portend the Cubs signing one of the marquee free agents to a long-term contract this offseason. Hoyer noted last week at the general managers meetings in Arizona that the Cubs are prepared to take a variety of paths to building their 2024 roster, and if they sign or trade for a big name, it would be because things lined up for them.
“Free agency is fun, right? It’s fun to talk about, it’s fun to write about and it’s certainly on the table,” Counsell said. “But the mission for Jed is what’s the best way to build something that can last for a long time. And when I say the organization’s in a healthy place, my perspective of that is he has all those options on the table to do that, but obviously free agency can get you in a lot of trouble.
“There’s certainly the options to do it, there’s the ability to talk about anything. Jed made that clear and that’s exciting, but how you build a team that is going to continually compete, it’s certainly going to take more than free agency and I think we all know that.”
Counsell is considered one of the major leagues’ best managers in part because of how he seemingly always gets the most out of his roster. That did not go unnoticed by the Cubs front office and ownership.
“Obviously he’s had really competitive teams in Milwaukee and done more with what looks like less in terms of on-paper talent,” Ricketts said, “but ultimately also just that steady, consistent, coming-every-night-to-win-the-ballgame kind of attitude that you have to admire about him and we’ve respected about him for many years. And hopefully he brings that kind of attitude to Chicago and gets us to the next level.”
The Cubs roster could use more star talent, especially in the middle of the lineup. Hoyer felt the Cubs left wins on the table this year, and Counsell is expected to mitigate that issue. Infusing the big-league roster with more talent would help too.
“I don’t think it really impacts what we do from a player personnel standpoint,” Ricketts said of the Counsell hire. “Jed would go out and find the best players under any manager. Jed will do what’s right to give us the best chance to win on the field and will let Craig do what he can in the manager’s role to, like I said, get us to the next level.”
4. Counsell underestimated how Brewers fans would take his departure for a rival.
A frosty reception likely awaits Counsell during his first trip back to American Family Field on May 27-30, at least from the Brewers fans among what typically includes a strong Cubs contingent for series in Milwaukee.
Counsell admitted last week was hard, and part of that stemmed from underestimating how Brewers fans would take his leaving his hometown team and the city he called home for 15 of his 25 big-league seasons, including the last nine as Brewers manager.
Pivoting to the division-rival Cubs did not go over smoothly among the Milwaukee faithful, highlighted by a sign being defaced at a Little League field that bears Counsell’s name in suburban Whitefish Bay, where he grew up.
“That was my miscalculation,” Counsell said. “As time moves forward, I’m very proud of what happened in Milwaukee. I think our jobs are to provide a great experience for our fans. I think time will look favorably on what was accomplished during those nine years I was a manager there. It’s there and it’s real and I understand it, too, but I think time will help.”