Column: By replacing David Ross with Craig Counsell, Chicago Cubs President Jed Hoyer dips into Theo Epstein’s playbook

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Craig Counsell, baseball’s most coveted free-agent manager since Joe Maddon, was hired by the Chicago Cubs on Monday in a cold-blooded move that harked back to the time former Cubs President Theo Epstein brought Maddon to the North Side nine years ago.

With a five-year deal for Counsell that’s reportedly worth a record $40 million, Cubs President Jed Hoyer signaled the missing piece in Year 3 of the team’s rebuild was a well-respected manager who could get the most out of his players and get them to a championship level.

David Ross, the favorite son of Epstein and a hero of the Cubs’ 2016 World Series champions, was hired by Epstein to replace Maddon in October 2019. But he apparently failed to show Hoyer he was still the right man for the job after a season-ending collapse cost the Cubs a National League wild-card spot.

In a press release Monday, Hoyer said Ross “continually showcased his ability to lead,” adding that his “legacy will be felt in Chicago for generations.” The statement added an “oh, by the way” that Counsell will be the manager “going forward” and will be welcomed at Wrigley Field next week.

There was no explanation of Ross’ dismissal or any mention of Counsell’s career.

Plenty of time for that at the introductory news conference. Maybe Counsell will follow Maddon’s lead and buy a round of drinks for the media.

Counsell, 53, enjoyed great success managing a small-market team in Milwaukee, where he won the NL Central three times in the last six seasons and compiled a .531 winning percentage over nine seasons.

He’s 7-12 in five postseason appearances, including a two-game sweep by the Arizona Diamondbacks this year in an NL wild-card series. His Brewers teams typically overachieved until the postseason rolled around.

Still, this move is sure to be welcomed by Cubs fans who followed Counsell’s career and weren’t enamored with Ross’ four seasons on the North Side, which included a division title — and quick playoff exit — in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season.

Counsell bet on himself last winter when he opted against extension talks with the Brewers, and it paid off handsomely. Brewers owner Mark Attanasio probably took him for granted, knowing Counsell’s love of Wisconsin. Milwaukee wasn’t just the only place Counsell had managed, but he also grew up in Whitefish Bay and still makes his home there.

Counsell interviewed with several teams, including the New York Mets and Cleveland Guardians. No one had any inkling of the Cubs’ interest in him or that he was intrigued by the Cubs, an organization he liked to poke fun at — such as the day in 2017 when he criticized a postponement at Wrigley Field by saying “it’s the first time for us that we’ve had players treated for sunburn after a rainout.”

Ross not only had another year remaining on his contract but was a favorite of Cubs co-owner Laura Ricketts.

Hoyer went to great lengths to defend Ross from fan criticism this past season, making the move even more stunning than the Cubs’ dismissal of Rick Renteria to hire Maddon after the 2014 season. That hiring involved a recruiting trip to Florida by Epstein and Hoyer and a leak of their interest in Maddon well before making the move.

Monday’s news leak, first reported by The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal, was like an explosion at Clark and Addison. The reverberations will be felt for months.

Ross and Renteria, meanwhile, will forever be linked in Cubs history for the dismissals by Epstein and Hoyer, who both appeared satisfied with the status quo. When asked at his end-of-season news conference how important 2024 would be for Ross to continue as Cubs manager, Hoyer gave a long-winded answer that indicated Ross would return.

“He’s not a new manager anymore,” Hoyer said. “He’s going into his fifth season. I think he’s really matured in the job and developed. Like all of us, I think he wants to get better every year.

“One of his greatest skills is he’s self-critical. He wants to continue to get better. And I know he’s going to spend the winter thinking about how he could have done things differently. … It is a very important year next year for him and for all of us.”

How Hoyer went from 2024 being a “very important” year for Ross’ future to relieving him of his duties a month later is a question only the Cubs president can answer. The general managers meetings, which begin Tuesday in Scottsdale, Ariz., will afford Hoyer an opportunity to explain.

Among the criticisms of Ross this past season was his decision to play his regulars to the last drop down the stretch despite fatigue setting in. On the final road trip, the Cubs hit .236 with a .306 on-base percentage while going 1-5 in Atlanta and Milwaukee to blow the wild-card spot. Dansby Swanson was 1-for-17 (.059) on the trip and looked mentally exhausted. The Cubs made several uncharacteristic mistakes as they collapsed.

Will Counsell change things? He never got the Brewers to the World Series despite their winning ways. The closest they came was in 2018, when they lost to the Los Angeles Dodgers in seven games in the NL Championship Series.

But he’ll be expected to get the Cubs to the promised land on the North Side, no matter who is on the team. Now it’s up to Hoyer to improve a roster that could lose its most valuable player, Cody Bellinger.

After the Cubs’ trade-deadline sell-off in July 2021 started the mini-rebuild, I asked Counsell if he thought the Cubs were headed in the right direction.

“Do I look like Jed Hoyer?” Counsell said with a grin. “I don’t know. I’m sure their farm system is greatly improved, and I’m sure there are young players I really don’t know much about or if they’re close to making an impact.

“I don’t think you can ever know. … We all think we know what’s going to happen, but there are teams that surprise every year. I don’t think you can make a statement right now about what can happen next year.”

Now Counsell and Hoyer are linked at the hip with a team that should be expected to contend in 2024 and beyond.

Hoyer made a statement without actually saying it:

Missing out on the postseason is no longer an option.


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