The Chicago Cubs have hired Craig Counsell to be their next manager in a stunning move, the team announced Monday. The decision by the highly coveted Counsell means he’ll be leaving the Milwaukee Brewers after nine seasons at the helm. It also means Counsell passed up the chance to manage the New York Mets () and that he will replace Cubs manager David Ross.
Counsell’s contract with the Brewers expired at the end of the 2023 season, which led to his becoming one of the most hotly pursued managers in recent memory. He was heavily linked to the Mets, incumbent Brewers and Cleveland Guardians. His move to the Cubs is a shocker. Chicago has given Counsell a five-year contract worth more than $40 million, per The Athletic, making him the highest-paid manager in MLB.
Counsell, a 53-year-old Wisconsin native, departs Milwaukee as the most successful manager in franchise history. His 707 wins leads all Brewers managers, and he also tops the franchise list for most career games over .500 at 82. He’s the longest-serving manager in Brewers history, and over that span he registered a winning percentage of .531 despite very limited payroll investment from club ownership. As well, Counsell has guided the Brewers to three division titles and five postseason appearances. This past season, the Brewers under Counsell went 92-70 and finished atop the National League Central. Counsell’s even-keeled personality, tactical acumen, and sustained record of success have made him one of the most highly regarded managers in baseball today.
For a number of reasons, Counsell’s decision qualifies as a true shocker. Let’s take a closer look as why that is.
1. Counsell was presumed to be headed to the Mets
Counsell’s contract with the Brewers expired after this past season. Coming off a division title in 2023 and with nearly a decade of success in Milwaukee despite limited payrolls, Counsell was not only the most coveted manager available but also the most sought-after dugout leader in some memory. His tactical expertise, measured demeanor, and capacity for winning under difficult circumstances made him such. Given the appeal of the Mets’ vacancy – meaning, mostly, owner Steve Cohen’s willingness to spend and commitment to winning – he seemed a natural fit.
What made a Counsell-Mets pairing even more likely is Cohen’s recent hiring of David Stearns to be the club’s president of baseball operations. Stearns was the architect of the recent successful Brewers teams, and he himself hired Counsell to manage the club. Those shared Milwaukee roots made Counsell the heavy favorite to go to Queens. That, of course, isn’t what happened. Presumably Counsell could’ve had the Mets job if he’d wanted it, so instead Stearns looked across town to tab Yankees bench coach Carlos Mendoza as the team’s new skipper.
2. Counsell wasn’t even reported to be on the Cubs’ radar
The Counsell speculation had his landing in one of three jobs. The Brewers reportedly had an offer on the table to make him the highest-paid manager in MLB, so a return to Milwaukee seemed to be a real possibility. As just noted, the Mets checked perhaps even more boxes for Counsell – the Stearns connection plus, in contrast to Milwaukee, an owner willing to invest in player payroll. Also, Counsell interviewed for the Cleveland Guardians job, which eventually went to Stephen Vogt. Nowhere along the way, though, were the Cubs mentioned by anyone of note as being a possible destination for Counsell. There’s a very good reason for that.
3. The Cubs voiced support for David Ross
Ross in his first season skippered the Cubs to the playoffs in the abbreviated and COVID-compromised 2020 campaign. Then as the club leaned into a rebuild, Ross and the Cubs endured losing seasons in 2021 and 2022, albeit not to embarrassing extremes. Then this past season, the team took a step forward with an 83-79 mark and a plus-96 run differential that saw them in contention for a playoff spot until the final days of the season. After the season concluded, lead owner Tom Ricketts had this to say about his manager:
“I think Rossy did a great job. He creates a great clubhouse culture, the players love playing for him. He keeps a steady, balanced approach game in and game out, that you need over the course of 162 games.”
Given that Ross was under contract for 2024 with a club option for 2025, it’s fair to read that as a vote of confidence. Still and yet, Ross lost the job that in an objective sense he probably didn’t deserve to lose. Not surprisingly, the Counsell hire appears to be a pivot that came together in haste and probably unexpectedly:
For Cubs fans and observers, this will no doubt bring back memories of Rick Renteria, who was surprisingly dismissed in favor of Joe Maddon, who soon after led the Cubs to the drought-busting World Series title of 2016.
4. Counsell is bound for a division rival after nine years in Milwaukee
Counsell is a Wisconsin native who still lives in the state, so in some ways it’s not surprising that, if he were to move, he’d do so just 90 minutes or so down I-94. Still, it’s a bit jarring to see Counsell make the jump within the NL Central and to the Brewers’ biggest rival (this is not to suggest the Brewers are the Cubs’ biggest rival).
While the Cubs are more willing spenders than the Brewers under Mark Attanasio, the Ricketts don’t fortify the roster in line with their vast revenues. Will that continue? Or was Counsell given assurances that the Cubs will spend like the financial powerhouses they are? Going to a team less inclined to invest in the on-field product than Cohen and the Mets are is another surprise. One could see Counsell’s spurning all that to remain with his home-state team he’d been with for almost a decade, but the Cubs? All of this makes the surprise choice even more compelling.
All this intrigue over a mere manager? The 2023-24 offseason, it says here, is off to a proper start.