SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The shock has not worn off. Craig Counsell’s decision on Monday to leave the Milwaukee Brewers for the Chicago Cubs established a new salary standard for managers, exposed the ugly side of the baseball business and made the Wisconsin native a pariah in a region where he previously was beloved. Other than that, it was a perfectly routine day on the managerial carousel.
The most surprising aspect is not that Counsell left the Brewers, a move that was, uh, brewing for months, but that he left for the team’s biggest rival rather than the New York Mets or even the Cleveland Guardians. Counsell knew fans in Milwaukee would freak out over him bolting for Chicago, given the little-brother, big-brother dynamic between the cities. And he did it, anyway.
The Cubs, meanwhile, knew dismissing David Ross to hire Counsell would be far more unsettling than their decision to dump Rick Renteria for Joe Maddon in 2014. Ross was not some standard-issue manager the front office inherited. He was an integral part of the Cubs’ 2016 World Series championship club, their handpicked choice to replace Maddon. And they fired him, anyway.
Counsell had his reasons. The Cubs had their reasons. The Mets, too, had their reasons for hiring a first-time manager, former Yankees bench coach Carlos Mendoza, without making an all-out effort for Counsell. Which of those three clubs made the best call? Which ones, if any, did not? It might be years before we know the answers. But here are my initial thoughts:
Under Ross, the Cubs under-performed last season. Under Counsell, the Brewers almost always over-performed. So if you’re Jed Hoyer, the Cubs’ president of baseball operations, the appeal of Counsell was understandable.
The Cubs’ collapse in September only exacerbated the difference between the two managers. On Sept. 6, the Cubs trailed the Brewers by just 1 1/2 games in the NL Central and held the second NL wild card. They went 7-15 the rest of the way to finish 83-79, nine games out of first place and one game behind the Diamondbacks for the final wild card.
Part of that is on Hoyer, who failed to adequately bolster the Cubs’ bullpen at the trade deadline. But the Cubs’ expected record, based on their run differential, was 90-72. Their seven-win shortfall was the third-largest in the majors, behind the Padres (-10) and Royals (-8). Hoyer repeated something Tuesday that he said at the end of the season: “We left wins on the table.”
Ross’ biggest shortcoming, in the view of some in the industry who were granted anonymity in exchange for their candor, was that he rode some of his regulars too hard. Left fielder Ian Happ played 158 games, second baseman Nico Hoerner 150. Center fielder/first baseman Cody Bellinger played in 93 of 95 games after returning from a left knee contusion on June 15. Shortstop Dansby Swanson played in 64 of 65 after returning from a bruised left heel on July 22.
Ross, in his fourth season, was managing a contender for the first time. He was well-liked by his players. He still had room to grow. But the availability of Counsell created an opportunity that for the Cubs, might not have come again. Hoyer’s job is to put his team in the best possible position to win. The five-year, $40 million contract he awarded Counsell was as much a show of faith in his new manager as it was a breach of faith with his old one. But it was all so uncomfortable. Unpleasant, too.
Owner Mark Attanasio’s bitter lament over Counsell’s departure — “Craig has lost us and lost our community” — was disingenuous. The entire industry knew Counsell’s intentions. Drawing on his experience as an active member of the players’ union, he wanted to end the stagnation in salaries for top managers.
Attanasio said he offered to make Counsell the game’s highest-paid manager “by both per season and total package.” But he did not offer nearly enough. And Counsell, even with his new $8 million average salary, is still making slightly less than the Braves awarded Joe Jimenez in his new three-year, $26 million deal.
Counsell told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel on Tuesday that he “needed and wanted a new professional challenge.” Which brings us to another, critical part of the equation, one for which Attanasio is at least partly responsible. The Cubs are better positioned than the Brewers to be a force in the near future, especially now that Milwaukee must replace Counsell.
The Brewers’ biggest strength, their starting pitching, is on the verge of crumbling. Right-handers Corbin Burnes and Brandon Woodruff are entering their walk years, as is shortstop Willy Adames. Woodruff, who underwent surgery to repair the anterior capsule in his throwing shoulder last month, already might have pitched his last game for Milwaukee. The Brewers must decide whether to tender him a contract at a salary in the $12 million range knowing he might not return until the second half of next season, if then.
The future is not entirely bleak. The Brewers’ major-league roster includes a number of young, athletic position players. Outfielder Jackson Chourio, 19, is one of the game’s top prospects. Catcher Jeferson Quero and third baseman Tyler Black also are on the rise, but the team overall might be starting to decline. Counsell will not need to go through a potential rebuild with the Cubs. The talent is better. The resources are, too.
The potential marriage between Counsell and the Mets hinged on two questions: Did new president of baseball operations David Stearns prefer a manager he could mold to his former manager with the Brewers? And, perhaps more significantly, did Counsell want to leave his Midwest roots for New York?
Stearns and Mets owner Steve Cohen, unconvinced the answer to the latter question was “yes,” offered Counsell considerably less than the Cubs’, according to The Athletic’s Will Sammon. In the end, Counsell’s decision wasn’t much of a decision at all. He valued the proximity to his home in Whitefish Bay, Wis. And he valued the Cubs’ $40 million.
The Mets might regret not pushing harder. First-time major-league managers are always a risk, first-timers in New York in particular. The Mets’ two managers before Buck Showalter, first-timers Mickey Callaway and Luis Rojas, both lasted only two seasons. Their failed tenures, however, preceded Stearns’ arrival.
Mendoza, the Yankees’ bench coach the past four seasons under Aaron Boone, is a bilingual native of Venezuela, and as highly regarded within the industry as a first-time manager can be. The Guardians certainly were impressed. They gave Mendoza serious consideration before hiring Stephen Vogt.
“I cannot tell you the amount of feedback I’ve gotten from everyone he’s interviewed with, which is, ‘I cannot believe this guy hasn’t gotten a manager job yet. Like, is this real?’” Yankees GM Brian Cashman told reporters Tuesday. “He’s got structure. He’s got process. He knows the game’s fundamentals. He’s been running our major-league spring training for years.”
Every manager has to start somewhere. Four of the six finalists for AL and NL Manager of the Year — Counsell, the Marlins’ Skip Schumaker, Rays’ Kevin Cash and Orioles’ Brandon Hyde — are or were in their first major-league jobs. Boone, too, was once a first-timer. And for all the criticism he has endured, he averaged 99 wins his first four full seasons.
These things are never easy to predict. Maybe Mendoza is the next managerial star. Maybe Counsell will prove less of a difference-maker than the Cubs envision. Maybe Ross will re-emerge with some other club to prove Hoyer wrong.
The shock will wear off. The games will begin. And the results, as always, will reveal which teams chose best.
(Top photo of Craig Counsell: Patrick McDermott / Getty Images)