The annual MLB general managers meetings lay the groundwork for the rest of the offseason.
The Chicago Cubs’ unexpected hiring of manager Craig Counsell added a wrinkle to what should have been an otherwise normal beginning to free agency. But it didn’t change the mission this week for President Jed Hoyer and the Cubs front office: getting an early feel for the free-agent market and the trade landscape and meeting with agents, including Scott Boras.
As the Cubs prepare to formally introduce Counsell next week, here are three takeaways from the GM meetings.
1. Craig Counsell’s departure to a rival a surprise for Brewers GM.
Thirty-six hours after the Cubs named Counsell their manager, Brewers general manager Matt Arnold stated he was surprised by Counsell leaving for a division rival but still spoke highly of his friend.
“From our perspective, it’s always been about people, that’s something Craig and I talked about a lot after working together for eight years, and I think that’s really important for us to put people first,” Arnold said Wednesday. “In this situation, we put Craig first throughout the process, and I’m thrilled for him and his outcome. At the same time, we’re in a position where we have to put our best foot forward and we’re going to do exactly that.
“Everything that Craig has done, all the accolades he deserves. I certainly enjoyed our time together and I’ll always have good memories of working with Craig Counsell. But at the same time we’re going to be competing against each other, and it should be a lot of fun.”
Pat Murphy, Counsell’s bench coach in Milwaukee, is in a “very real” discussion for the Brewers manager opening, Arnold said. If he is not hired, Arnold wants to make sure the incoming manager brings on his own bench coach. That could create a path to Murphy joining Counsell as the Cubs work through who will be retained from David Ross’ staff.
Arnold would not discuss other names the Brewers are considering for the job, including whether their list includes Ross.
“If it ends up with Pat Murphy not being our manager, he will absolutely have a home here with the Brewers,” Arnold said.
Arnold did not close the door on letting members of the Brewers coaching staff follow Counsell to the Cubs, stating if it’s a good opportunity for someone, he would be open to having that discussion.
“Having come from the Tampa Bay Rays, there are a lot of places where you get raided when you have good people, and we’ve had that happen here in Milwaukee and that’s something we should be proud of,” Arnold said. “That speaks to our culture and the good people that we’ve produced here.”
2. Christopher Morel will get offseason work at first base.
One of the Cubs’ biggest internal roster questions centers on Morel’s positional future with the team.
The Cubs have had ongoing conversations about his best fit and believe Morel, 24, would benefit from sticking at one position defensively rather than being used in a utility role. Ideally the right-handed Morel would play second base, where his athleticism and arm strength could shine, but that spot is locked down by Gold Glove award winner Nico Hoerner for at least the next three years. They have tried Morel at third base, where he logged a majority of his starts in the minors. He put in work pregame there, too, in his last two big-league seasons to complement his 17 starts at the hot corner for the Cubs, but inaccuracy with his throws has been a continuing issue.
It’s a balance between blending Morel’s strengths and skill set with the team’s personnel.
“He’s a very capable second baseman, (but) we have (Hoerner), so that’s not the spot we’re going to put him,” Hoyer said Wednesday. “Another team might be able to put him there and have him do that.”
With limited everyday options for a non-designated hitter role, the Cubs want Morel to get offseason work at first base in winter ball and see how he handles the position.
“Finding a home for him is something that would be really valuable,” Hoyer said. “(First base) fits our needs and potentially his needs. … With that position, too, you’ve got to put a lot of work in.
“The hard part about first base is that certainly it doesn’t require a lot of things that third base or second base do, but the footwork around the bag, understanding positioning can be really challenging, so that’s a big part of it.”
The Cubs do not have an obvious option within the organization at first base and used Cody Bellinger — now a free agent — more in the second half of the season. Lefty slugger Matt Mervis could get another look in spring training and show he learned from his first taste of the majors. Otherwise, their first baseman would need to come through a trade or free agency if they want a non-platoon setup — perhaps re-signing Bellinger, Jeimer Candelario or signing Rhys Hoskins. Candelario, though, preferred playing third base, which prompted former manager David Ross to instead use Patrick Wisdom at first when both were in the lineup.
There is no harm in seeing if Morel can handle first base in the offseason. He also represents a trade asset the Cubs can use to help acquire a better roster fit, namely a star player. Morel is not arbitration-eligible until after the 2025 season and boasts easy power, both attractive qualities to organizations.
3. After Marcus Stroman’s opt-out, Cubs will explore internal and external options for rotation opening.
Hoyer had multiple lengthy conversations with Stroman’s agent, Brodie Van Wagenen, on Friday and Saturday about what the pitcher wanted to do by Monday’s deadline. Even at the moment Van Wagenen called to inform Hoyer of the decision, he was unsure whether Stroman would return for the remaining one-year and $21 million on his contract.
“I think he felt like in this market he’d secure a multiyear deal and I think that was a priority,” Hoyer said. “It’s not often when I truly didn’t know what direction that was going to go. That’s why we had a bunch of conversations because I think they were kind of feeling it out and thinking about it too.
“He was a very hard worker, really diligent with his preparation, really cares about winning. He wants to sort of do his own thing in terms of how he does his preparation and that’s great. We gave him that freedom because he deserves that and he always gets his work done. He’s always prepared. I thought it was a good match for us.”
Stroman’s departure opens a spot in the rotation, and Hoyer wants to give opportunities to pitchers within the organization, pointing to the depth they had this year. It’s a big-league group that featured right-handers Javier Assad and Hayden Wesneski and left-handers Jordan Wicks and Drew Smyly, plus arms at the upper levels in the minors that most notably include right-handers Ben Brown and Cade Horton.
“I do like the fact that we can give some young guys some opportunities,” Hoyer said.
But as Hoyer likes to preach: Teams never can have enough pitching. So expect the Cubs to explore the starting pitching market. The Cubs pitching staff needs more swing-and-miss stuff, which Hoyer said he would look to add.
“I still don’t feel like the stuff of our staff can still continue to ramp up,” Hoyer said. “It’s gotten better, but the stuff in the big leagues isn’t where our minor-league system is. We’ve got to continue to migrate that up and have more swing-and-miss.”