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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — As the calendar approached the end of October, a thought formed in Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer’s head.
Craig Counsell, at the time still under contract with the Brewers and interviewing with them and a group of other potential suitors, would become a free agent in November. The Cubs still had David Ross occupying their manager’s seat. But if the one widely seen as the best on the market could make it to free agency, Hoyer felt like this was a chance to make a shocking but necessary move.
“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 Tuesday afternoon at the GM Meetings in Scottsdale, Ariz. “From my perspective, my job is to figure out how to win as many games as we possibly can in the short term and the long term, and there was nothing about this move that I didn’t feel like met that criteria.”
When the time came and Counsell did hit free agency, Hoyer reached out. Any communications they had in the days after were kept as quiet as possible, with Hoyer keeping an inner circle (which included chairman Tom Ricketts) “literally as small as I could make it.”
It didn’t take long for them to shock the baseball world. Hoyer flew to Ross’ home in Tallahassee to share his decision in a “very hard, emotional conversation” and general manager Carter Hawkins passed along the information to most of the players, and then the Cubs officially announced Monday that they hired Counsell to replace Ross as their manager on a five-year, $40 million deal.
But why did Hoyer target Counsell?
That answer isn’t all that complicated. It’s not that Ross managed himself out of job, and it’s not that Hoyer was looking to get rid of him.
It’s just that he didn’t feel like he could pass up the chance to bring in one of the premier managers in the majors leagues.
“This is no knock on Rossy, who I think incredibly highly of, but I just felt like Craig is at the very, very top of the game,” Hoyer said. “It’s hard to rank managers, but certainly, he’s at the very, very top of the game and I’ve really admired watching him from afar.”
Counsell is recognized as one of the best managers in baseball. Since taking over the Brewers’ job in 2015, the team is 707-625 (.531) in parts of nine seasons. They’ve gone 487-384 (.559) since the start of 2018.
Hoyer actually pointed to the 2017 season, when Milwaukee went 86-76 for Counsell’s first winning season as a manager, as the point when the Cubs’ executive really started to appreciate what he does in that role. Hoyer didn’t consider the two teams’ talent levels to be all that close.
But Counsell, as he seems to do every single year, managed to get more out of his team than expected and forced the Cubs to keep them at bay into late September.
While the Cubs’ golden era crumbled after an NLCS appearance that year, Counsell’s teams continued to play consistently great baseball. The Brewers have gone to the playoffs in five of the last six seasons (they have only nine total postseason appearances in franchise history) earning two wild card spots and three division titles.
Even when preseason predictions have them finishing lower in the standings, they always seem to prove them wrong.
“I think making this like, ‘Craig Counsell was the whole reason,’ of course not,” Hoyer said. “But I do think, consistently, they’ve outperformed expectations, and that’s borne out both with your eyes and when you look at the data.”
Craig Counsell’s lack of playoff success was not a factor in the decision
Some criticism aimed at Counsell is his playoff record. The Brewers went 7-12 in postseason games during his tenure. The closest they got to a ring was a Game 7 loss in the NLCS in 2018.
But that lack of playoff success didn’t deter Hoyer from making this move.
“To me, the greatest sign of a really good manager is his ability to navigate the marathon,” Hoyer said. “I think that the sprint is really hard. I know that’s how managers make the Hall of Fame is by winning a couple World Series, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But I do think that what’s happened over a dozen or so games overshadows all those different seasons.”
Hoyer hopes Counsell brings some of at least that regular season success to the Cubs so they can get back to the postseason. He felt like they “left wins on the table” in a season where one more ‘W’ over the the Marlins or Diamondbacks (whom they went a combined 3-10 against) would’ve gotten them into the playoffs.
The new man in charge, one who’s succeeded on the edges of the game, feels like someone who can help keep the Cubs from leaving more on the table moving forward.
Counsell impressed beyond results
When the two of them met last week, Hoyer learned more about Counsell’s mindset as a skipper. He got an understanding of how Counsell operates both on the field and in the clubhouse.
And more importantly, he discovered how much importance Counsell places on the manager’s job.
“He’s unbelievably sharp,” Hoyer said. “Talking to him about clubhouse stuff, blending the clubhouse with analytics and the best way to get the most out of people was incredibly impressive. And just his sense of what his job entails and the responsibility of his job. It really stood out to me.
“This guy wants to handle every single part of the process and views that as his responsibility, and to me, that’s really impressive the way he views his chair as so much more than making a bunch of in-game moves. He views the totality of everything as his responsibility and talked about that in an amazingly articulate way.”
Hoyer believes in Counsell as the one to help this team reach its loftiest goals. But he also publicly discussed only a month ago his faith in the man who used to have the job.
The decision to move on wasn’t an easy one, and the history Hoyer shares with Ross certainly didn’t make it any easier. But there wasn’t might not have been another opportunity for him to make a managerial move like this again, and for the good of the Cubs, he knew he had to do it.
“Ultimately what I always try to get to a point of is if it’s a really hard decision and I’m willing to make it, then I feel like that means that I’m doing the right thing for the organization,” Hoyer said. “Yes, it was incredibly hard to let Rossy go. I felt like it was my responsibility to the organization to do that.
“That’s why I can sit here and say, yeah, I think Rossy’s a very capable manager and has a really bright future. I thought the best thing for this fan base was the move that I made. It was really hard, but I think that’s why Tom hired me.”
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