Column: Craig Counsell’s strong first impression shows why the Chicago Cubs made the right call

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If there were any questions as to whether the Chicago Cubs got it right, they were answered Monday morning at Craig Counsell’s introduction as the 56th manager in franchise history.

Counsell admitted that he was a little “scared” and “uncomfortable” sitting at the table in his new job, that he wasn’t totally up to snuff on the Cubs roster and that he underestimated the angry reaction of Wisconsinites to his defection to the Milwaukee Brewers’ archrival.

Counsell said he would take things slowly at first after the whirlwind courtship that led him to becoming the highest-paid manager in baseball history, but he was clearly excited about the challenge of living up to the expectations that go hand-in-hand with the record payday.

“My hope is that the pressure to win in Chicago is just the pressure to win in Chicago,” he 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.”

First impressions count, and this one was lasting. Confident in his ability to get the job done. Humble enough to know he doesn’t have all the answers yet. Accepting the pressure that comes with managing a team in a big market. And acknowledging the only way he knows how to manage is by just being himself.

It was as strong an introduction as I’ve seen in three-plus decades of watching new Cubs managers trotted out to the media by executives from Jim Frey to Jed Hoyer.

With the sun shining brightly and the temperature up to 60 degrees at Wrigley Field, it felt as though Counsell should’ve started his new roof-free gig that afternoon. All he needed was some players.

And that’s the next step for Hoyer as the new tag team goes to work.

Counsell said “the organization is in great health” and there is “momentum happening here and it feels close.”

“That means there’s a really exciting future ahead of us, and now it’s my job to be part of taking us to the next level,” he said. “And that’s the plan.”

I’m not sure how close the Cubs really are after their end-of-season implosion and the potential loss of their best hitter, Cody Bellinger. The bullpen is full of question marks, and there are holes at third base, first base and center field, especially if Bellinger flees for more money.

But at least the Cubs have the resources to add to their core. Counsell built his reputation on getting the most out of an ordinary roster, so he should be able to do even more with what figures to be a much higher payroll than he was used to in Milwaukee.

“I joked with (general manager Carter Hawkins) already that I don’t know much about the Cubs,” Counsell said. “But I believe in how Jed sold the vision, absolutely, and that was impactful to me.”

Counsell then admitted “we’ve still got to get a lot of decisions right.” He turned to Hoyer on the podium and repeated himself: “We’ve got to get a lot right still.”

Hoyer smiled, or perhaps blushed. I wasn’t exactly sure from my seat.

Counsell was correct in his assessment of Hoyer as a good salesman. Hoyer also takes big swings, from dumping the “Big Three” of Javier Báez, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo to signing Bellinger to a one-year deal to firing David Ross and giving Counsell $40 million over five years.

If you look at all the big moves Hoyer has made since taking over for Theo Epstein in 2021, most of them have worked out well. But 2023 was Hoyer’s first real chance at making the postseason as team president, and when the Cubs blew it, he quietly stewed in October while watching an 84-win Arizona Diamondbacks team make it to the World Series.

Hoyer had already indicated to the media that Ross would return in 2024. I asked him Monday what changed.

“As the month wore on, I started to think about (how Counsell) was becoming a free agent … and letting it percolate in my head,” Hoyer said, calling it a “rare opportunity” to get a top-of-the-line manager in his prime.

So he invited Counsell to his North Shore home before Counsell’s interview with the Mets in New York, setting in motion the most shocking Cubs managerial firing in decades. Even Lee Elia got a stay of execution in 1983 despite ripping Cubs Nation in an epic rant.

Firing Ross, with whom Hoyer shared a relationship dating back to their years in Boston, was a cold-blooded move that showed how strongly Hoyer felt about Counsell. It also suggested he wasn’t satisfied with Ross’ performance down the stretch, even as he publicly defended him.

Ross probably felt blindsided, but if he looked inward he might admit his managing in September — especially overusing the same tired relievers — would be a firable offense in many organizations. The San Francisco Giants axed manager Gabe Kapler, who won 107 games two years earlier, for a late-season collapse.

Hoyer reiterated he was “frustrated” by not making the postseason but added he “didn’t place it all at Rossy’s feet.” Still, a lot of it was squarely on Ross. Counsell, who had a talk with Ross, conceded baseball is a “cutthroat” business.

Hoyer didn’t deny that his decision fit that category.

“My job is to do everything I can in the short term and long term to win here and make sure (Wrigley Field) is rocking late in the season and it’s a great experience for everybody,” he said. “I view that as my responsibility, and I thought this met that criteria.”

Counsell’s handling of bullpens has always been one of his strengths. Then again, he had All-Star closers in Josh Hader and Devin Williams to call on to end games. Hader had 96 saves and a 2.30 ERA with the Brewers from 2019-21. Williams posted 51 saves and a 1.73 ERA in 2022-23.

Ross wasn’t afforded the luxury of a push-button bullpen, and Adbert Alzolay’s late-season injury proved critical.

Can Counsell develop a great closer in Chicago? Does he have some kind of magic formula?

“No and no,” he said. “Look, great relievers are great friends to managers at the back of the game. Nobody asked me about putting Devin Williams in a game ever. That’s pretty clear, or Josh Hader. So I understand that.

“But teams are composed differently and they’re made up differently. … The goal is certainly to find players of that caliber, but those aren’t easy players to find.”

Tell us about it.

Counsell now finds himself in the strange role of villain in Milwaukee, where he grew up and still lives. He rebuffed the tag Monday and clearly was emotional about the reaction in Wisconsin to his taking the Cubs job.

“That’s been part of why this has been a hard week for me, for sure,” he said. “And I underestimated that. That was my miscalculation.”

Counsell said he believes time will heal all wounds and Brewers fans will look back favorably on what the team accomplished in his nine years.

“It’s there and it’s real, and I understand it,” he said. “But I think time will help.”

There will be plenty of time for Chicago to get to know Counsell, and vice versa.

But if first impressions are lasting, this could be the start of something big.


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