Column: Chicago Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts has a new ‘guy’ and believes Craig Counsell will be the one

MESA, Ariz. — On the final day of the 2023 season, after the Chicago Cubs collapsed to blow a National League wild-card spot, Chairman Tom Ricketts told reporters in Milwaukee that manager David Ross was still “our guy.”

“He’s a great manager, he creates a great clubhouse culture, the players love playing for him,” he said.

A month later, Ross was fired and Brewers manager Craig Counsell was now “our guy,” signed for a record $40 million over five years.

Addressing the media Monday at the Cubs spring training complex for the first time since Ross’s dismissal, Ricketts reiterated he “expected to go forward” with Ross in 2024.

“When Craig did not extend with the Brewers we thought maybe he’d be looking around to maybe move teams, and (President Jed Hoyer) came to me with the idea we should probably talk to him,” Ricketts said. “Craig is one of the best managers in baseball and you’re always trying to look to get better at every position, including manager.

“And so when Jed approached me I was very much in favor of him pursuing those discussions and we’re really happy it turned out the way it did.”

That shows again how quickly things can change in life.

One minute you’re on top of the world, and the next you’re in the recyclables bin.

Counsell will be the seventh manager of the Tom Ricketts era. Lou Piniella resigned during the 2010 season and was replaced by Mike Quade, who lasted one more year before being cashiered by incoming President Theo Epstein. Dale Sveum was tabbed to manage the start of Epstein’s rebuild in 2012 but was fired after the 2013 season for allegedly being too tough on his young players, particularly Starlin Castro.

Next came Rick Renteria, a kindly gentleman who seemed to do exactly what Epstein wanted, but was summarily dismissed after 2014 when Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon suddenly became available. Maddon managed the Cubs to their first World Series title in his second year, but ending the curse could not earn him an extension, and he was fired after 2019.

Ross was handed the job in 2020 without any managerial experience, and after Hoyer traded or non-tendered most of the stars from the World Series team and started the non-rebuild rebuild, he gave Ross an extension in 2022.

Photos: Inside Cubs spring training camp

Counsell had dinner with Ricketts and some staff Sunday night in the Valley, starting a relationship that hopefully will outlast his predecessors.

“I haven’t spent much time with Tom, so just to get to spend some time with him and really understand him and his family’s history a little better was a lot of fun for me,” Counsell said Monday after the first full squad workout.

Ricketts said Monday he didn’t “see any reasons why we wouldn’t be favored for our division this year,” though he didn’t mention that no one else in the division is very good.

Counsell said he’s fine having those expectations expressed by the owner.

“Yeah, that’s good with me,” he said. “That’s where you set your expectations every single year, so there’s no reason we should have lower expectations than that. That’s absolutely correct.”

Of course that could be difficult without you-know-who, a subject Dansby Swanson addressed Monday when asked about his offseason conversations with Cody Bellinger.

“Let’s just say we’ll keep all those things internal,” he said. “I know everybody loves Belli and he knows how we feel about him. So we’re hoping obviously things work out in our favor.”

Swanson and Bellinger were the two biggest factors in the Cubs’ summer surge from 10 games under .500 to wild-card contender. If Bellinger doesn’t come back, there will be more pressure on Swanson to carry the offensive load with Seiya Suzuki, Ian Happ, Nico Hoerner and Christopher Morel as his supporting cast.

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“I never think of that,” Swanson said. “At the end of the day our job is to win games. It doesn’t matter how it happens. It can happen in a plethora of ways. I feel like they’ve done a really good job of building our team for this season, and you can never count out guys getting better.

“So often we look past that because we say ‘This is what a player is.’ When in reality, players get older, better, stronger, they get smarter … I feel like this group is really good at putting their heads down and working and I’m really excited to see the growth of all the guys this year.”

Ricketts said the Cubs’ discussion with agent Scott Boras over Bellinger has yet to get “serious,” which doesn’t bode well for a reunion. He could talk to Boras and get things rolling, but said: “I don’t talk to Scott. One of his signature moves is to go talk to the owner. But when you do that you undermine the credibility of your general manager, so inserting yourself into that negotiation, I don’t think that helps, so I don’t talk to him.”

Ricketts won’t pick up the phone so as not to upset his front office? That’s a shame for Cubs fans, and if he really wants Bellinger back, Hoyer should be OK with the owner getting involved in talks.

The motivation to get better should be supercharged after last year’s bitter ending. Ricketts admitted Monday he “lost a lot of sleep” over the loss in Milwaukee that final weekend that ended their playoff hopes.

“Other than that, it was a tough September, but it happens,” he said.

A “tough September” is an understatement. But it doesn’t have to happen again. Hiring Counsell was the right move, but bringing back Bellinger should be his focus now. A new season brings new hopes for the Cubs.

Time for Ricketts to go the extra mile and get a deal done, both for Cubs fans and his new “guy.”