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Column: Will Craig Counsell’s reputation as a bullpen whisperer translate to the Chicago Cubs?

MESA, Ariz. — The change from David Ross to Craig Counsell was the biggest offseason story for the Chicago Cubs, whose players enter spring training not only preparing for the season but trying to learn about their new manager and his philosophies.

It’s early but the transition has looked seamless, and Counsell’s easygoing manner fits in well with the personality of this team.

Photos: Inside Cubs spring training camp

While Cubs President Jed Hoyer emphasized when the change was made that it had more to do with the availability of a manager with Counsell’s reputation than anything Ross did or did not do, it’s easy to speculate that the end-of-season fade from a wild-card spot in 2023 was a factor in his decision.

“Obviously everybody kind of knows it was a little bit of a shock,” veteran starter Kyle Hendricks said of the move. “But it’s a business at the end of the day and ‘Rossy,’ man, he’s been around so long. He handled it like a true pro does. Me and (Ross) were so close, and we’ll always have that. The friendship and (being) teammates and the manager he was for me, he’s done everything for me in my career. I can’t thank him enough.

“On the other side of that, you see what we’ve got bringing in Craig. It’s amazing. Watching him on the other side with the Brewers for that many years, he was a pain in our butt for a long time. I’m already picking his brain — saying ‘What have you got for me? What were you guys seeing off me?’

“Trying to get better that way. But just how tuned in he is. He’s obviously very relaxed and laid back, but just locked in. Serious but intent-based. Already had a few conversations with us, the pitchers and catchers, and loved the message that’s coming across. It’s simple, but we’re all in it together with one goal, together and very intent-based.”

Perhaps the biggest focus of this spring will be Counsell’s handling of the pitching staff, with four set starters and maybe a handful of relievers who figure to handle the back end of games.

“This is going to sound like a broken record, so get used to me saying it,” he said Thursday for the first of what could be many times before opening day. “But I don’t know what our bullpen is going to look like, and I’m going to change my mind during the course of the season and I think I should.

“Bullpens are things we have to be very open-minded to. I think that’s how you have to continue to look at it — not to get too stuck, not to form too hard of a bias on things, not to get stuck on (what happened) last night.”

The signing of veteran Hector Neris to a bullpen core that features Adbert Alzolay, Julian Merryweather and Mark Leiter Jr. adds a weapon the Cubs lacked at the end of last season. Michael Fulmer posted a 1.60 ERA from May 28 to Aug. 18 but made only four more appearances, including his final one Sept. 11 because of elbow soreness that eventually led to offseason UCL surgery.

Ross used several young relievers in key roles down the stretch, but none stepped up to provide the kind of consistency Fulmer brought over that three-month stretch. Alzolay also missed time with a forearm strain, adding to the problem. Ross even gave Marcus Stroman a cameo in the bullpen after Stroman returned in late September from various injuries, and it backfired in a crucial series in Arizona.

Counsell said it would be “almost malpractice on my part” to define anyone’s role this early in spring.

“The order we get those 27 outs is less important than getting those 27 outs,” he said.

The player who could be most affected is Alzolay, who won the closer role last year and figured to be the primary closer again in 2024. Counsell’s philosophy doesn’t mean Alzolay won’t return to the role. It only means it’s not set in stone.

Did Counsell have to talk to Alzolay about his open-minded philosophy?

“No,” he said. “It certainly can be Adbert, for sure. I just don’t think at this point we make decisions. Adbert obviously did a really nice job of it last year and he had success, and that matters, absolutely.”

When the Cubs bullpen began to jell last summer, it ignited a surge that looked as if it could lead to a happy ending. Hoyer said that stretch was one of the positives that was overlooked after the September collapse.

“We were 10 games under, and to fight to get to 12 games over was super impressive and said a lot about the character of the team and the coaches,” he said. “I do feel like that sprint took a toll. When you’re winning like that every night and the toll that takes on the bullpen, I think we had to play catch-up too much.

“That’s a lesson to take from it. … For all of us there’s kind of a bitter taste in our mouth that we weren’t able to complete that because I think that would’ve been a very special playoff team. Hopefully that bitterness fueled everyone this offseason.”

Counsell’s reputation as a certified bullpen whisperer was aided by a string of top closers in Milwaukee. He had a reliable ninth-inning guy almost every winning season there, starting with Corey Knebel in 2017. Josh Hader replaced Knebel in 2018 and immediately turned into an elite closer, and Devin Williams took over when Hader was dealt to the San Diego Padres on Aug. 1, 2022. Williams was an All-Star each of the last two seasons, first as a setup man and then as closer.

But it was more than just the “name” relievers. The Brewers bullpen excelled down the stretch in 2023, and its 2.16 ERA over the final month was second only to the Los Angeles Dodgers’ 2.12. No one would’ve guessed heading into last year that a 32-year-old left-hander named Hoby Milner, on his fourth major-league team, would finish with a 1.82 ERA and allow no earned runs in his last 18 appearances from Aug. 18 to the end of the regular season.

Somewhere on the Cubs roster, a Milner-type might be waiting to get an opportunity to prove himself, whether it’s Daniel Palencia, Hayden Wesneski, Luke Little or someone else.

Counsell’s job, along with pitching coach Tommy Hottovy, is to make sure the right arms are used in the right slots and the bullpen fatigue that showed up down the stretch doesn’t reoccur this season.

The process already has begun and figures to make this an interesting six weeks in Arizona.