The Chicago Cubs made a stunning move on Monday, finalizing terms on a five-year, $40 million contract to lure manager Craig Counsell away from the Milwaukee Brewers.
The deal took shape after a clandestine meeting in early November between Counsell and Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer.
In joining the division-rival Cubs, Counsell defected after rejecting a Milwaukee offer that averaged $5.5 million per season. That would have made Counsell the highest-paid manager in the majors. But the Cubs wouldn’t be denied, and one-upped the Brewers with a contract that makes Counsell the highest-paid manager in MLB history.
Before publicly announcing the successful recruitment of Counsell Hoyer flew to Florida to fire Cubs manager David Ross. As recently as September, Cubs owner Tom Ricketts seemingly reaffirmed the team’s commitment to Ross by referring to the manager as “our guy.” But that was before Counsell let it be known that he planned to listen to offers from other teams. His contract with the Brewers expired at the end of the 2023 regular season.
Counsell – a proud native of Wisconsin who had a long and warm association with the Brewers – put the franchise and the fan base in a melancholy mood. The anger reverberated.
“We’re all here today because we lost Craig,” Brewers owner Mark Attanasio said when addressing Milwaukee media on Monday. “But I’ve reflected on this – Craig has lost us and he’s lost our community also.”
Brewers fans are not pleased. Counsell’s hometown is in Whitefish Bay, a suburb about 15 minutes from Milwaukee. It was there that a worker was spotted covering up a “Craig Counsell Park” sign that had been vandalized with spray paint. Village leaders had renamed the park in Counsell’s honor back in 2012.
Counsell’s move wasn’t good news for the Cardinals. Counsell’s departure will likely weaken the Brewers, but his arrival makes the Cubs stronger.
Here are seven reasons why Counsell’s new role means trouble for the arch-rival Cardinals in the NL Central.
1. In Counsell the Cubs brought in the best manager in major-league baseball who isn’t named Bruce Bochy.
– Since Counsell’s first full season (2016) as Milwaukee’s manager, the Brewers ranked 3rd in the National League in winning percentage (.541) behind the Dodgers and Braves.
– Since 2018 the Brewers had a ,559 winning percentage under Counsell – sixth overall and third in the NL — and qualified for the playoffs five times in six seasons. That tops the number of postseason appearances by the Cardinals (4) and Cubs (2).
– From 2016 through 2023, the Brewers spent a total of $728.7 million on their 26-man payroll. That’s $413 million less in payroll investment than the Cardinals and $550 million less than the Cubs. Over the eight seasons Milwaukee never ranked higher than 17th in the majors in 26-man payroll and were 20th or lower five times.
– During the same stretch (2016-2023) of baseball the Cardinals ranked 10th in 26-man payroll four times and were no lower than 15th. The Cubs had a top-six payroll five times and were no lower than 14th. But Counsell did more with less, unmanaged a changing cast of managers who worked for the higher-spending teams in St. Louis and Chicago.
The only mark against Counsell is a 7-12 record that ranks eighth in winning percentage (.368) among teams that have competed in at least 10 postseason games since 2018. The Brewers had only one postseason triumph under Counsell, defeating the Rockies in a 2018 NLDS matchup before falling to the Dodgers in the NLCS. Since 2019, the Brewers were 1-8 in the playoffs with Counsell at the controls. A big reason for that is the relatively low amount of money that’s been allocated to Milwaukee’s offense. Counsell had to lean on pitching and defense to win. In going 1-8 the Crew batted .218, slugged only .311, struck out an alarming rate (33%) and averaged just 1.77 runs per game.
I doubt that the Cubs will be skimping and going cheap in assembling an offense for their new manager.
2. The Cubs aren’t fooling around. The Counsell signing signaled Chicago’s intention to go for it in 2023, and that only makes STL’s formidable challenge more difficult.
The Cardinals went 71-91 in 2023, slogging through their worst season since 1990. Their .438 season winning percentage ranked 60th among the 63 Cardinals teams that have competed in the expansion era which began in 1961.
After collapsing down the stretch last season, going 5-12 in their last 17 games, the Cubs squandered a highly probable wild-card playoff spot and finished with 83 wins. It was a disappointing end to a season that began with renewed hope after the Cubs invested $300 million in free-agent contract signings.
The Cubs appear to be highly motivated to make a run in 2024, and we should expect to see a flurry of impact moves from the North Siders this offseason. You don’t lavish Counsell with a record-breaking contract and then decline to give him an improved roster. In Milwaukee, Counsell never worked for a franchise that had anything close to matching the Cubs’ financial firepower.
This doesn’t mean the Cubs will amass the largest payroll in baseball in 2024, but there are no real limits on their spending. The Cubs have the resources to do whatever they want to do. And they can also enhance the roster through trades, tapping into a farm system that was ranked No. 1 by FanGraphs, No. 2 by ESPN and No. 4 by MLB Pipeline in late August.
3. Chicago’s aggressiveness only reinforces the view of the Cardinals as a team that’s stuck in the past as a complacent organization that’s lowered its standards.
Cardinals management is offended by these characterizations but have a chance to do something about it. They can change the derogatory perception this offseason by making a series of bold and dynamic moves. But after crumbling to their fourth-worst season over the last 77 years, the Cardinals are staying the course with president of baseball operations John Mozeliak and manager Oli Marmol. The complete status of the coaching staff is yet to be determined, but Mozeliak has said that all of the 2023 coaches will return in 2024. (The Cardinals will probably add to the staff.)
Now, contrast that Cardinal attitude to the Cubs mindset. Chicago responded to a discouraging final month of the 2023 season by firing Ross to bring in Counsell. Ross was a beloved and respected catcher on the 2016 World Series champion team. Part of the Cubs family, Ross was hired as manager in 2020, and the Cubs were content to stay with him as he developed in the job. If Counsell had chosen to stay in Milwaukee – or opted to manage the Mets or Guardians – Ross would still be Chicago’s manager in 2024.
Hoyer said this about Ross at the end of the 2023 season: “Yeah, I was very pleased with Rossy this year. The things I mentioned before, coming from being 10 (games) under and sort of maintaining not only just the competitiveness, but also never having the team focus on individual stuff. It was always about the team. We never lost that. Creating that type of culture is incredibly difficult and he does a fantastic job of that.”
But the unexpected opportunity to hire Counsell was irresistible, and the Cubs took action. They put sentiment and personal relationships aside to do what’s best for the franchise.
Can we say the same about the Cardinals? Unfortunately, no. Not when the same people responsible for the 2023 disaster have remained in their current roles and enjoy enviable job security without fear of being replaced.
If the Cardinals were still winning postseason games, making deep October runs and seriously contending for their next NL pennant and World Series title, no one would be complaining about them. The praise would be heaped on them – just as it was from 2000 through 2014. Over those 15 seasons the Cards won the most regular-season games by a National League team, led the majors in most postseason games (121) and postseason victories (64.) And they capped the high-level success by winning four NL pennants in 10 years and two World Series in six seasons.
4. Counsell should help the Cubs in the campaign to attract free agents.
Sure, money matters the most. But if the Cubs are bidding on free-agent pitchers or position players and it’s a close call, Counsell can give them the edge. He’s a proven winner who got it done while managing a Milwaukee team located in the smallest U.S. television market (No. 38) in the majors. He has a reputation as an excellent communicator with his players and is heralded for cultivating a winning clubhouse culture.
Other than Bochy, I don’t think any manager has done a better job than Counsell at running a bullpen. He’s resourceful in covering for starting-pitching injuries, coaxing unexpectedly good results from rotation fill-ins.
If the contract offers are close, why wouldn’t you want to play for Counsell? And if you’re a free agent that wants to play in a larger market for a high-profile team with a national following – well, Counsell will be working at Wrigley Field in Chicago. He has you covered.
Here’s a hypothetical: If the Cubs and Cardinals are competing for the same free-agent starting pitcher, and the offers from each team similar would you want to sign on with Craig Counsell of Oli Marmol?
Who has the better farm system? (Cubs.) Which franchise has the larger financial war chest to empower them? (Cubs.) Who can you count on to be more aggressive about improving the roster? (Cubs — unless the Cardinals prove otherwise.)
5. Counsell has an excellent track record in handling pitching. And that seems especially important at a time when the Cardinals have lost their touch in constructing a pitching staff.
The Cardinals must make a significant upgrade in their pitching. The pressure is on the front office to do that. They also have to do a much better job of developing pitchers. (That area could be improved by hiring Chaim Bloom as a consultant; that’s his specialty.) But what about at the field level? What can the manager and pitching coaches do to glean positive results from pitchers that have stalled or showed signs of decline?
Over Counsell’s final six seasons in Milwaukee, here’s where the Brewers ranked among MLB teams starting pitching and bullpen performance:
* Starting pitchers: 4th in ERA, 8th in WAR, 6th in Win Probability Added.
* Relief pitchers: 8th in ERA, 7th in WAR, 2nd in Win Probability Added.
6. Counsell is fluent in analytics, but has enough old-school sensibility that he can put to good use. And in Milwaukee, his relationship with the front office was just as strong as his bond with his players.
“One of the reasons I’ve enjoyed working with Craig so much is that he has the ability to question everything that he does and that we do as an organization,” former Brewers president David Stearns told the New York Times in 2021. “And through active questioning and discussion, he has naturally grown and altered his opinions on certain aspects of how he goes about it. But the general tenets of what he believes and strives to do is put players in the best position to succeed. That has been constant since day one.”
7. Counsell is tactically sound. He’s good at smoothly navigating his way through games. Putting players in the best position to succeed isn’t as easy as we think. Too many insecure managers screw it up by getting too cute or trying to curry favor with influential players.
Perhaps Counsell’s skill is best reflected by his exceptional record in games decided by one run. There’s some luck involved in one-run outcomes, but the Brewers were consistent winners in these close-game tests. That has to mean something that transcends luck. Over the last six seasons the Brewers went 149-98 for a .603 winning percentage in one-run margins. In the same six seasons STL’s Cardinals winning percentage in one-run games was .523.
Counsell is an established asset. At 53 years old, he’s still in his prime. His experience is valuable. Older managers have been winning pennants and the World Series in recent years. The list includes Bochy (age 68), Dusty Baker (74), Brian Snitker (68), Rob Thomson (60) and Torey Lovullo (58).
Counsell is in the sweet spot of his managerial career.
That’s why the Cubs jumped at the chance to hire him.
And the heat on the Cardinals has just been turned up.
Thanks for reading …
Bernie hosts an opinionated sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS. It airs 3-6 p.m. on Monday through Thursday and 4-6 p.m. on Friday. You can stream it live or access the show podcast on 590thefan.com or through the 590 The Fan St. Louis app.
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All stats used in my baseball columns are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Sports Info Solutions, StatHead, Baseball Savant, Fielding Bible and Baseball Prospectus unless otherwise noted.
For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.
While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.
Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.