How the Cubs swooped in to hire Craig Counsell and shocked the baseball world

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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Cubs president Jed Hoyer has always admired Craig Counsell from afar. From his point of view, the manager had no weaknesses. Hoyer watched Counsel continually maximize a Milwaukee Brewers roster that never looked the best in the division in terms of talent on paper, but kept winning.

Hoyer saw Counsell as someone who excels at in-game movements, consistently keeps his club together and handles the media with aplomb. This was, in the Cubs’ view, the best manager in the game.

But Hoyer also realized that the consultant was in high demand and was not keen on making a management change with his team. David Ross was the man he and Theo Epstein chose to succeed future Hall of Famer Joe Maddon, the manager who helped end more than a century of misery on the North Side with the 2016 World Series. Chancellor was already expected to be locked up on November 1, When an advisor officially becomes a free agent. Hoyer had no intention of pursuing him before that date. He had an idea that New York would not be Counsell’s final destination due to family reasons that pushed him to the Midwest, but he thought Counsell would just return to Milwaukee.

This change did not occur due to some mounting tensions between Ross and Hoyer. But as November approached and Counsell remained on the market, Hoyer’s interest was piqued. An opportunity to improve significantly in an important area presented itself and Hoyer pounced. On November 1, he contacted us and the advisor came to the Chicagoland area to meet with Hoyer. The last thing Hoyer wanted was for all of this to become public, for the advisor to end up somewhere else, and for Ross to find out. This would create the kind of friction between the manager and the president of baseball operations that would likely be untenable.

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To ensure the matter remained quiet, Hoyer was the only person who met with the advisor, very few people in the front office knew about the meeting, and the advisor never came to the Cubs’ offices adjacent to Wrigley Field, according to a league source. There had been little interaction between the two before that meeting on November 1, but they seemed to have hit it off quickly and talked deeply into the night.

In the coming days, Chancellor will meet with the New York Mets and Cleveland Guardians while remaining in contact with the Brewers. Late Saturday night, Hoyer was optimistic they were close to the financials and a deal would be reached. By Sunday morning, the deal was completed. Hoyer had stolen the best manager in the game from a rival, and by agreeing to a five-year deal worth more than $40 million, Counsell set a new bar for managerial compensation while also remaining close to family.

Jed Hoyer wasn’t looking to move on from David Ross, but then Craig Counsell became a real possibility. (Armando L. Sanchez/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

Hoyer immediately booked a flight to Florida to meet Ross in Tallahassee. The two had a long and sometimes tense conversation, during which general manager Carter Hawkins called over some of the staff and players to deliver the news, and word quickly spread throughout the team.

Part of the reason the Cubs hired Ross four years ago was because they felt Maddon wasn’t maximizing the roster, and that there were ways Ross could better impact the team on the sidelines. Meanwhile, in Milwaukee, Counsell always seemed to make the most of a roster that seemed inferior to the one he and Theo Epstein put together with the Cubs.

Now Hoyer has that difference-maker leading his team. But there are still questions. The Cubs roster was good enough to win 83 games last year and with Marcus Stroman and Cody Bellinger heading to free agency, the team looks much weaker right now.

While the Cubs will be active this winter, the big spending on consulting shouldn’t be read as a guarantee that they will outperform the competition in free agency. Improvements are needed and moves will be made. But Counsell was sold to a rapidly improving team and will continue to do so for the life of his contract, and not on the idea that the Cubs will build a monster team in one winter.

The Cubs have a strong MLB roster, a plethora of young talent in their farm system on the verge of making an impact with a big league team, and great financial flexibility. Although they will be flexing their financial muscle over the coming years, the expectation is not that they will win multiple bidding wars this winter in what is largely viewed as a weaker class of free agents, especially on the center fielder side.

It will also be determined how the advisor will form the coaching staff. Many coaches have contracts for next year and beyond. The hope is that the Chancellor will retain the majority. Pitching coach Tommy Hottovy is viewed as one of the best coaches in the business, and it appears the Cubs have finally found some stability in their hitting coach after Dustin Kelly successfully connected with the players in his first year on the job.

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But it is possible that there will be defections on the part of Russian loyalists. Chancellor has a long history with his bench coach in Milwaukee, Pat Murphy. Murphy managed Counsell at Notre Dame and also has a history with Hoyer, who hired Murphy as a special assistant early in his two-year tenure as San Diego Padres GM. Murphy is a candidate to replace Counsell as manager in Milwaukee, but he could also find himself in Chicago if he doesn’t get the job.

All of that — how the roster will change and who will be on the final coaching staff — remains unknown. What is clear is that Hoyer and the Cubs sent a message about their team’s trajectory. They snatched up one of their major rivals and added the best manager in baseball to lead a group that is on the rise and should compete for years to come.

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(Top Image: John Fisher/Getty Images)

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