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  • Craig Counsell's Arrival Announces the Chicago Cubs' Own

    Brandon Glick

    In a reprise of the same moment in 2014, the Chicago Cubs have hired a small-market guru in favor of the incumbent manager they’d previously publicly supported. Will the Craig Counsell move yield similar dividends to the Joe Maddon hire, or will the baseball gods deliver the Cubs their karmic comeuppance? 

    Image courtesy of © Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

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    Normally, when I get a text from my father on a Monday afternoon, it’s related to our juggernaut fantasy football team (eight finals appearances in eleven years… don’t ask me about our record in said finals) or laughing at the weekly incompetence of the New York Jets and Giants. So when I got a text from him that read “Ross we hardly knew ya,” I was confused, to say the least. Before I could respond with a simple question mark, his next text came through: “Hello Craig Counsell.”

    While I can’t share more from our conversation beyond that (my responses may or may not have included some NSFW language), suffice it to say that my head was spinning. I wrote a companion article to this one as a topper to my on-the-fly trilogy about David Ross, so I won’t belabor the issues I had with him as a manager here. What I will say is that the Cubs improved a lot with this move. 

    It’s hard to quantify the exact value a manager or head coach brings to his team in any sport, but baseball is arguably the hardest. There are intangible qualities that the average fan never sees. Nor do they make an obvious impact on any single game. Characteristics like being communicative with the front office and managing players' egos and personalities (things at which Ross excelled) are more about the “culture” of a team. That vague-seeming phrase means a lot of things in a lot of contexts, but for all of Ross’s faults as a manager, there’s no denying that he led the Cubs admirably through some tough times and lean years. 

    Now, though, the Cubs are on the doorstep of annual contention, falling one win shy of the playoffs (the team they finished just below, the Arizona Diamondbacks, went on to win the National League pennant in case you slept through October). This move announces the Cubs not only as serious about winning, but also as serious players in a topheavy free agent class and trading market. 

    Counsell is very highly regarded around the game. That's why the secrecy behind the move stunned as many as it did. It’s rare to see a coach be courted with the fervor and publicity that Counsell received, especially given his ties to other big-market organizations with managerial openings (David Stearns and the New York Mets). If you want to see more about exactly what Counsell does so well, check out Matt Trueblood’s article here, but regardless of the improvement he brings to the team’s win-loss record, the move is symbolic of the team’s direction. 

    When the Cubs made their move for Joe Maddon almost exactly nine years ago, it was perceived around the sport as the team’s first foray into serious contention under the stewardship of Theo Epstein. Now, the same can be said for Counsell and Jed Hoyer. David Ross and Rick Renteria aren’t equals in Cubs lore, but they do pose as strikingly similar sacrifices for the “good of the team”. 

    As Hoyer pointed out in his press conference at the GM meetings on Tuesday, over the last four full seasons, the lowest seed has won the National League pennant. While the pressure ratchets up in August and September (which we saw with the Cubs' collapse this year), the wins mean just as much in April and May. Simply making the playoffs is enough to be considered a “true title threat” nowadays; as such, consistently making it every year is the goal. Counsell may not have a World Series trophy on his mantle just yet, but neither did Maddon when he signed a then-record contract with the Cubs in 2014.

    Some fans will love this move, while others will merely shrug their shoulders. A select few will pan it, complaining about the hefty contract Counsell got (five years, $40 million, the most ever for a manager in baseball) and his previous postseason failures. While I can’t speak for everyone, I can say this: Cubs baseball feels rejuvenated today. The Cubs finally posted a record above .500 again, and yet the year fell flat due to the awful baseball played in the 2023 season’s most important weeks. There was hope that the Cubs would spend enough to amplify this roster to the point of being the favorite in the NL Central, but questions remained following the spending spree last offseason. 

    Now, though? Now the Cubs are back in business. The front office fired its hand-picked guy, going full Evil Empire-era Yankees and pulling a big-market flex by signing Counsell away from their division rival. Though you can’t guarantee this move will work out, the Cubs wouldn’t have made it if they didn’t like their chances. 

    The Cubs will be aggressive this offseason. They’ll trade prospects and hand out money to brand-name free agents. Hopefully, this Counsell signing means the end of the Eric Hosmer-style reclamation project days, and instead ushers in a new era of sustained Cubs dominance--one in which the players, much like their new manager, want to be in Chicago. 

    From here, all fans can do is wait for the (hopefully) transaction-heavy offseason and the start of next year. Expectations will return for a team that now just has one remaining member of the 2016 squad (Kyle Hendricks), though they have the right man in place to run the show. Counsell may be supplanting a franchise icon, but he’ll have plenty of time to write a Cubs legacy of his own. 

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