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Before Jed Hoyer made the decision to pursue Craig Counsell to be the Cubs’ manager, the club already had a sitting skipper who received praise from up and down the organization at the end of the season.
Call Hoyer’s move to secretly meet with Counsell when his contract with the Brewers expired, and then fire David Ross with a year on his contract remaining in order to bring Counsell in, whatever you like.
Shocking. Sneaky. Necessary. Ruthless. Those are just some of the adjectives that’ve been used. However you want to describe it, tough, the fact is that the Cubs’ president of baseball operations made the change for the sake of winning more ballgames.
“It’s hard to rank managers, but very clearly, he’s at the very top of the game,” Hoyer said at Counsell’s introductory press conference this week.
He’s not wrong. Counsell is widely considered among the best managers in baseball both on and off the field, someone who constantly got the most out of the rosters he was given in Milwaukee.
He spent most of the last nine seasons working in the smallest market in Major League Baseball, yet his Brewers teams went to the playoffs in five of the last six years (three of those appearances coming after earning National League Central crowns). That success has earned him four runner-up finishes in NL Manager of the Year voting, the latest of which came when the award winners were announced Tuesday.
Some critics would surely point to his lack of postseason success. Milwaukee was 7-12 in the playoffs and won only one series under Counsell.
But getting to the postseason with greater regularity is what it’s about. The more times you get in the dance, the better the chances you can make a deep run. Only one of Counsell’s Brewers teams made that run (one win from the World Series in 2018), but Hoyer believes what he has done in Milwaukee can translate to Chicago — with more potential to have that playoff success.
“When you look year in, year out, I think he’s been able to maximize the talent on his roster,” Hoyer said. “He’s done that really consistently as well as any manager in the game. I know that people definitely point to postseason stuff. That’s always a question. I think that the mark of a manager is really over the marathon. What’s happened in a dozen or so games I don’t think is representative. But year in, year out, when you look at the way he’s been able to maneuver his roster, I think it’s really exceptional.”
The thing is, “potential for playoff success” won’t be good enough for a fan base hungry for another title. Four quick playoff exists won’t be good enough for a team that wants more. One game away from the World Series won’t be good enough for long if it doesn’t lead to the next step.
Not saying that just making the postseason was good enough in Milwaukee, either. But again, that’s the smallest market in MLB. They don’t have the resources that the Cubs do. Counsell and his squads were earning playoff appearances with smaller budgets than what he can get on the North Side (which is impressive in its own right).
Add onto that a five-year, $40 million contract that makes him the highest-paid manager in MLB history, and of course expectations will come.
But you ask Counsell, and that’s what he wants.
“There’s pressure in this job, man,” Counsell said. “There should be, and I accept that and welcome that and I think it should be there. Regardless of what’s going on salary-wise — there’s a financial component to this, obviously there is — my job is to win baseball games, no matter what.”
Those words must be music to Cubs fans’ ears. It’s not like he was going to say anything different, but acknowledging that his performance boils down to winning baseball games is at least one way to get fans to nod in approval.
The other way to do that is to acknowledge that Wrigley Field these days is a place where rabid fans go to watch their team actually win. Is it still a cool place to hangout and have a couple beers during the summer, much as it was when the Cubs were still the “Lovable Losers”?
Sure, but post-2016, the bar for what’s acceptable has been raised. And it seems Counsell understands that, too.
“Walking into Wrigley [Monday], the first day as a Cub, and it already starts to mean something,” Counsell said. “You walk into the history, you walk into the energy, you walk into a place that you already know it demands your best. That feeling is just a feeling that I need to have and I love to have, and I’d love that to be a part of my daily life.”
So yes, the pressure is on.
For Counsell, for Hoyer, for chairman Tom Ricketts, for the players, for Counsell’s soon-to-be-announced coaching staff. This managerial switch was made in the name of winning, so winning is what needs to happen.
Is Counsell ready for the kind of scrutiny Ross, a beloved World Series hero, faced during his tenure with the Cubs? Is he ready for that pressure to win to manifest itself as soon as Opening Day 2024?
If the way he talked Monday about this opportunity is any indication, he at least seems willing to tackle that pressure head on.
“My hope is that the pressure to win in Chicago is just the pressure to win in Chicago,” Counsell said. “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, regardless.”
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