Column: Craig Counsell says all the right things in his Cubs Convention debut. ‘You don’t think I can do it? Watch.’

Craig Counsell understands a lot of eyeballs will be on him in 2024 after signing a record five-year, $40 million deal to manage the Chicago Cubs.

Like any free agent who hits the jackpot, the pressure to live up to the contract simply will be something he’ll have to deal with from opening day.

Winning is not optional, it’s expected. There will be no learning curve or time to acclimate himself to the organization. It’s win or else.

But Counsell told the crowd Saturday at the Cubs Convention that he has been an underdog for most of his professional baseball career and doesn’t know any other way to be. So don’t expect any changes in his demeanor or managerial style just because he changed uniforms. Counsell wore gym shoes and a black hoodie to his Cubs Convention debut.

“You’ve just got to do it your way,” Counsell said. “I’m quite aware of what happened in the position I am in, and I’m grateful for it. But it almost makes me feel like nobody thinks I can do it now. That’s how I’m processing it now — (that) you don’t think I can do this.

“You don’t think I can do it? Watch.”

It was a bold statement, especially coming on his first day of interacting with Cubs fans. I’ve listened to many managers come to the Cubs Convention since my first one as a Tribune reporter in 1987, including Don Zimmer, Dusty Baker, Lou Piniella, Joe Maddon and David Ross. But I don’t recall any of them challenging people to doubt him on his opening day.

It might be just what this team needs because the Cubs, as currently constructed, have left a lot of room for doubts. To suggest it is a better team than the one that ended 2023 is crazy. Unless they re-sign Cody Bellinger, the lineup is not one that most teams will fear. The Shōta Imanaga deal was likely a good one, but the rotation still lacks depth. And there’s the nagging question of what to do with Christopher Morel, the energizer bunny who lacks a set position to play.

But it’s early, even with spring training a month away. Bellinger might not be a Cub, but his name was brought up on numerous occasions from fans and reporters.

Counsell said he has quizzed his staff for lineups and written down some possible lineups of his own, only to be told by President Jed Hoyer not to bother.

“Jed said it was the fourth inning, so I don’t have to,” he told fans.

So Counsell wrote a version with Bellinger and one without him?

“No,” he told reporters with a laugh. “Nice try.”

If it’s only the fourth inning of the offseason, Hoyer is only getting started in his deal-making. That suggests they could go all the way to the start of spring training before finishing the roster construction, waiting for the right deal instead of panicking to satiate impatient fans.

“We don’t have any fixed deadline,” general manager Carter Hawkins said. “In a perfect world you have your team going into spring training. A lot of these players that sign in March and into the season, it’s just a tough transition phase to get back up to speed when you’re behind the eight ball that way. It doesn’t mean it can’t work, but it seems like it’s harder to work. That’s anecdotal, of course. We wouldn’t rule it out. It would be foolish to rule anything out. But we’d much prefer to get our team sooner than later.”

Counsell was fine with the slow pace of the offseason.

“You have to adjust, and in Jed’s role, you have to be patient,” he said. “And when deals present themselves, you make them. And if you don’t do it that way, you’re probably making deals you don’t like. ... Trying to get your team better really never ends. There is no end date to that.”

First impressions Saturday were mostly positive as Counsell spun stories about an 0-for-44 slump, how a Garth Brooks moment in spring training helped him change his batting stance and how he went to a casting call in Milwaukee for a bit role in the 1989 film, “Major League” but was told: “You look like you are 12 — you could be the batboy.”

Perhaps the singular moment that won over the most fans Saturday was when Counsell discussed his philosophy on bunting, which he rarely asks players to do.

“I think we love the word ‘sacrifice,’ ” he explained. “However, if the sacrifice isn’t successful, it’s not good for the team.”

At his first Cubs Convention in 2003, Baker told fans to embrace the concept of hope in spring training, when young players can emerge out of nowhere and make teams better.

“You have to leave some room for some spontaneous surprise,” Baker said.

Likewise, Counsell said he firmly believes in the farm system and the possibility of winning with a youngish team. But he told a gaggle of reporters that “solving for wins” can be done in different ways, and he’s not against spending whatsoever.

“Look, I don’t want to knock star players,” he said, laughing. “If you can get a player that does a lot, that’s incredibly valuable. Bats in lineups, they help teams. You’re looking for them for sure. But you’ve got to acquire them the right way.”

Counsell has spent almost two months on the job getting to know his new surroundings, players and staff and learning the idiosyncrasies of Cubs fans. After being associated with the Brewers for so long, he’s starting to feel comfortable in blue pinstripes, albeit with the same black hoodie.

“It feels better certainly working with players,” he said. “Even this weekend feels better, meeting players, interacting with fans. That feels like the job I was supposed to do.”

And remember, it’s only the fourth inning.