When I wrote my piece advocating for the Cubs to fire David Ross, I did it with the pretense that it was more suggestive than practical. In that article, I mentioned my love for Ross, the person, and my appreciation for what he had done leading the team through that soul-crushing firesale in 2021. However, the statement I ended with has proven prescient: “The Cubs are ready to be competitive again right now. Hoyer has put together a roster with a window in the process of being propped open. The time for Ross to improve as a manager is up. If he’s not ready now, the Cubs need to move on.”.
Well, move on, the Cubs have, as they announced the stunning hire of former Milwaukee Brewers manager Craig Counsell on Monday afternoon.
In my follow-up to that first article (where the comment section was NOT in agreement with me), I said, "A decade ago, during the first rebuild under Theo Epstein, Rick Renteria was brought in as manager to help guide the Cubs through some lean rebuilding years. Then, [Joe] Maddon was made available by the Rays, and the Cubs capitalized and brought him in despite previously promising that Renteria would return for the 2015 season. The move worked quite well, as the Cubs went to three straight National League Championship Series under the stewardship of Maddon. There may not be a free agent coach of that caliber available this winter (unless Craig Counsell spurns both the Brewers and new Mets’ boss David Stearns to join the Cubs), but there are better options than Ross.”.
I’m not here to toot my own horn, though. There’s an actual human cost to moves like this, and I’m sure Ross was blindsided by the sudden betrayal of a front office that had defended him at every turn. He’s beloved in the clubhouse and will always be a Chicago legend for helping guide that legendary 2016 team to the title. As fans, though, we want what’s best for the team. I wrote those articles advocating for the firing of Ross not because he was a bad manager but because he wasn’t a particularly good one. Craig Counsell is indeed a good one.
I do not doubt that some Cubs fans will have a sour taste in their mouth from the proceedings of all this. It’s eerily similar to the Renteria-Maddon situation, though Renteria was only with the Cubs for a year and wasn’t a beloved player beforehand. Ross got specifically selected for this job by Hoyer once Maddon was let go, and the Cubs made sure everyone understood that it was a long-term play. Ross was a baseball lifer with much to offer, but much like a prospect rising to the majors, he would need time to develop and hone his craft.
Unfortunately for Ross, the timeline of a franchise isn’t inextricable from the development of its head coach. The Cubs accelerated their competitive window with the Dansby Swanson signing last offseason, doubled down on it with the Jeimer Candelario trade at the 2023 trade deadline, and then proceeded to watch the team that usurped them in the playoff standings go on to win the National League pennant.
The Cubs could have easily run it back with Ross following another aggressive offseason, putting a “playoffs-or-bust” ultimatum on his head before the season. The clubhouse, the front office, the media, and the fans were all familiar with Ross and his cadences, and no one in the national media was lighting them up for keeping their incumbent (even if I was).
Instead, the Cubs declined the comfortability of Ross, electing to put a target on their backs by stealing one of the best managers in baseball from their division rival. There will be plenty of complaining from teams (if not publicly, then privately) about the Cubs willingly resetting the managerial market with the enormous price tag for Counsell.
The deal is enormous, but it won’t count on the Cubs’ bottom line for the luxury tax. It’s a savvy way of greatly improving the team without hampering their flexibility to make other player-related moves. The hope is the Cubs will continue to flex that financial muscle over the offseason, though even if they’re more skittish than they were with Counsell, the Cubs have yanked their contention window wide open. It’s a loud and boisterous move, rather than the more subtle climb to contention teams like the Diamondbacks and Orioles showcased this year, but it’s effective all the same (don’t forget the Rangers quite literally bought their way to a title this year).
It’ll be many, many years before the final receipts on this decision can be graded. Perhaps Ross will go elsewhere and become the manager the Cubs front office always envisioned he could be, or maybe he’ll refrain from managing following this. Counsell might follow in the footsteps of Maddon, or he could become a cautionary tale in spending big on a manager when you already have a competent one in place.
No matter how this all plays out, though, the Cubs just proved to everyone that they are serious. No stone will be left unturned as the team tries to maneuver its way into annual title contention. That, more than anything, is why the Counsell move had to happen - it’s why the Cubs had to fire David Ross once Counsell became available. The team is ready to win, and now the rest of the league knows that too.
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