Counsell moving on to manage division-rival Cubs

November 7th, 2023

MILWAUKEE – While the Brewers were the first team on the board with an offer, Craig Counsell's managerial future has been decided – and he’s headed to a team that didn't even have an opening.

In a stunner, the Cubs are set to hire Counsell with the richest contract in history for a Major League manager. A source told’s Mark Feinsand that Counsell will earn $40 million over the next five years, surpassing a standing offer from the Brewers that would have made Counsell the highest-paid manager currently.

Counsell will be introduced in Cubs pinstripes early next week at Wrigley Field.

"When he first told me, I said, 'Are you messing with me?'" Brewers owner Mark Attanasio said.

That was the reaction of Milwaukee fans, front office officials and players alike. Counsell was raised in the Milwaukee suburb of Whitefish Bay, Wis., where he’s still raising his own family. He grew up rubbing elbows with Rollie Fingers and Robin Yount at County Stadium while his father worked in the Brewers front office, and went on to play for the Brewers when they ended a 26-year postseason drought. Then he worked in Milwaukee’s front office before becoming the winningest manager in franchise history over the past nine seasons.

Now, he’ll manage against Milwaukee. It was hard to wrap one’s head around the news. One prominent Brewers player asked for a couple of days to ponder the development before he comments because “this one hurts.”

“It kind of came out of nowhere,” Brewers ace Corbin Burnes said. “I think my reaction is the same as everyone in the organization and the fan base. We’re just shocked initially.”

“I’m still processing it, too,” said longtime Brewers pitcher Brandon Woodruff, who got a call from Counsell soon after the news broke. “I was not expecting the Cubs.”

Woodruff added, “But then when you dig down a little bit deeper, you kind of get it.”

Besides the dollars involved – both in terms of Counsell’s salary and the Cubs’ payroll might – managing in Chicago keeps Counsell close to home while his two daughters finish high school and his two sons play college baseball at Minnesota and Michigan. Counsell still lives just north of Milwaukee in Whitefish Bay, where he and his wife, Michelle, have raised their four children.

Counsell was the most successful manager in Brewers history by victories and postseason appearances -- five in the past six seasons, with division titles in 2018, ’21 and ’23, when the Brewers overcame a slew of early-season pitcher injuries to win 92 games.

Throughout the year, Brewers officials engaged Counsell about an extension, but he made clear he wanted to wait to test the open market, or perhaps take a year off from managing. Attanasio said Counsell informed him in early September that his thinking had shifted toward managing in 2024, and perhaps managing someplace other than Milwaukee. The men then resolved to keep that thinking private, lest it become a distraction to a team headed toward the postseason.

Still, the Brewers made a push to keep Counsell, who'd been the NL's longest-tenured manager, rooted in Milwaukee. A source told that the Brewers had a longstanding multiyear offer on the table that would have made Counsell the highest-paid manager in baseball, as reported Monday by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Precise terms of Milwaukee’s offer were not known, but it would have been in the neighborhood of $5 million per season, considering that retiring Cleveland skipper Terry Francona was the previous leader with a $4.5 million salary in his final season in 2023. Counsell's camp made it known recently that he was motivated to raise the bar for managerial salaries.

"I'm not going to speak for Craig, he spoke plenty over the last several weeks as to what he was trying to do," Attanasio said. "We'll see if it's successful or this was a one-off."

The Brewers’ offer to Counsell was extended weeks ago, before the 53-year-old became a free agent and interviewed with other clubs. Before Monday, he was known to have met with the Mets -- who plan to hire Yankees bench coach Carlos Mendoza as their manager, according to a source -- and the Guardians, who announced the hiring of Stephen Vogt as their skipper on Monday.

No one had the Cubs on their radar, however, until Counsell called Attanasio on Monday morning. Brewers GM Matt Arnold was airborne at the time, on the way to Scottsdale, Ariz., for this week's General Managers Meetings.

In the event Counsell departed, Attanasio said, Arnold has prepared to move quickly in a search. Attanasio deferred questions about potential candidates to Arnold, but did say that all of the Brewers coaches has signed contracts to return in 2024, including Counsell's bench coach and onetime college coach, Pat Murphy.

Asked whether the Brewers had a chance to match the Cubs' record-setting offer, Attanasio said, "I don't [like] getting into a tit for tat of this happened or that happened. ... For several weeks we've had an offer that would have made him the highest paid manager in baseball, both per season and total package. I feel very good about that. And he made a decision to go another direction."

If there was a knock on the Brewers during the Counsell era, it was that postseason success proved elusive. In 2018, the Brewers beat the Cubs at Wrigley Field in an NL Central tiebreaker, then swept the Rockies in the NL Division Series and played all the way to a Game 7 of the NL Championship Series against the Dodgers. Since then, the Brewers bowed out in the first round of each of their next four postseason appearances, including getting swept by the D-backs in this year’s NL Wild Card Series. The Brewers are 1-9 in their last 10 postseason games.

In recent weeks, the Brewers had begun compiling a list of managerial candidates in the event Counsell moved on, and they already interviewed some internal candidates. They will have to play catch-up, since a handful of potential candidates have already been hired. New Giants manager Bob Melvin is a former Brewers bench coach who has interviewed for Milwaukee’s managerial opening several times over the years, for example. And Vogt, the new Guardians manager, is a former Brewers player who is well regarded and would have surely been on Milwaukee’s list.

"Craig was definitely a key part of our success," Attanasio said, "But if I had to list all the reasons we're successful, we'd be here another half hour. ... We're committed to finding a manager who can be as successful as Craig."