Winter Meetings interview with Craig Counsell

December 11th, 2017

Q. When you guys talk about your starting pitching, what do you say about Jimmy Nelson? Is there any way to know how long he might be out or is it all kind of guesswork?
CRAIG COUNSELL: I think it's -- I don't think we're at a point where we can project a return date right now. I think he's 10 weeks post-surgery. And I talked to him last week. He's doing great and he's very encouraged by how he's recovering, but I think to put any kind of time frame on it right now is not appropriate.
I think as we get to Spring Training, as we come into Spring Training, I think that then certainly we'll have to be able to take a little closer look at it.
Q. He's not going to throw until Spring Training, right?
CRAIG COUNSELL: That's, yeah, that was, that was kind of the original prognosis, was that that's when he would start.
Q. How much is that question kind of dictating your search this winter?
CRAIG COUNSELL: Well, I don't think that is. I think you go on kind of without Jimmy and then not planning on, certainly to start the year that's just not going to happen, so it's a spot that we have to account for as we start the season for sure.
Q. Are there resources in the want to add a No. 1 pitcher out there via trade or free agency?
CRAIG COUNSELL: Yeah, there's the want to, yeah, yeah. I think what we have to do is we have to just -- to me it's a puzzle of the innings. It's putting together the innings and how we're going to cover all the innings. And I think the better the pitcher, you feel like the more innings the guy can pitch, which has a carryover effect, to me, to the rest of the team, to the bullpen specifically.
So I think we're definitely in need of innings and how we get those innings, starters, relievers, is kind of still what we're trying to sift through.
Q. Isn't this one of those areas where the manager has a different idea than the general manager? Like for you, you would sign [Yu] Darvish and [Jake] Arrieta and everybody as the manager, wouldn't you?
CRAIG COUNSELL: Well, yeah, I think that great starting pitching certainly it makes your job easier, for sure. The decisions don't happen as soon in the game; they tend to happen a little later in the game with really quality starting pitching. But I think we have to be open to figuring out different ways to piece together the 27 outs, and I think we were pretty successful at that last year in kind of deploying some guys in different ways. It certainly gave us another avenue to do that.
So depending upon how our pitching kind of -- our look of how we look for pitching and how we find pitching this winter, I think that will kind of dictate our approach to it next year.
Q. One of the wild cards you have is , because he has a background now in relief and starting. Is it difficult to decide how he'll be best served on your staff, or will any moves you make or don't make before Spring Training help you decide?
CRAIG COUNSELL: Yeah, I think -- look, we have not added any pitchers to the mix as of yet. So I think part of that decision kind of is reflective on what we add and who we add. The other thing is that he had a lot of success in the role we used him last year. Are there ways to expand on that? Can you use him at the start of the game in a role like that? So we're considering everything right now with Josh and like I said on Dec. 10, you feel like you got some time still.
Q. How far off do you feel you are from the Cubs, or is it because the Cubs are making a lot of different moves that it's really not a question you can answer until you see the makeup of their team after Spring Training?
CRAIG COUNSELL: What you're looking at, what I look at is trying to put together 90-win teams. I think that's what you're kind of trying to do and put yourself in the mix, or upper 80-win team. I think that's a franchise like ours we have to do, where we're at right now. And where that puts us at the end of the year, I'm not sure. The Cubs, I don't think, are really a factor in that.
But we put together a team last year that was an 86-win team, one win short of what it took to get into the playoffs, and so we're looking just to do a little bit better than that. I don't think the Cubs necessarily, I don't think they're a part of that.
Q. You don't think there's any motivation for your players having to establish your team and in the beginning of the year and then second half not falling off and then try to come back and prove you were the best team in that division?
CRAIG COUNSELL: Well, of course there's motivation for that. The games against the teams in your division have a little extra meaning. The Cubs certainly have been the top of the division for the last three years or two years. So they're the team to beat. There's no question about that.
Q. As a younger manager a couple years ago coming in, how has that helped you, maybe, in your job relating to the players? And also in any way was anything about the job surprising to you when you first started?
CRAIG COUNSELL: Well, I think the first year I took over, I think, nine of the guys on the team had been teammates, so that was a pretty high number. So that's a different dynamic just to start with. I think the biggest thing the first time you take over, I think it's the scope of your job, what you're responsible for, who you're responsible for. The parties you have to account for and lead and manage and help be good at their jobs. I think that's the first thing, understanding that scope and getting it right and helping everybody be the best they can at their jobs is, I think, the first task.
Q. With the relatability to the players, even though some were teammates?
CRAIG COUNSELL: Well, I think that's just as much as anything, I think the relatability is just you're current with it, if that makes sense. I think one of the tricks I think is as we get farther away from our memories, I don't care who you are, we're not as good at it. Our memories get worse and how we remember things gets worse; we tend to be a little rosier, I think, in how the story happened. I think just being realistic about what it takes to be a Major League Baseball player and I think being close to that, being a little more accurate with that is probably what the relatability kind of speaks to.
Q. When you talk about a shift in managers and managerial styles from [Jim] Leyland and [Don] Baylor, who you played for, to guys who it now looks like look more like you in terms of communication skills, up and down, and working with the front office. The guys that have been hired this year, Martinez, Cora, Callaway, all sort of in the Dave Roberts/Craig Counsell model as communicators and implementers rather than kind of wing-it personalities.
CRAIG COUNSELL: Yeah, well, look, Jim Leyland was a manager for a long time because he was really good at being a manager. He was really good at his job. I think those guys last. Those guys keep managing. He had a lot of success. He was really good.
Q. Could he manage today though with all the information coming from above?
CRAIG COUNSELL: Oh, a hundred percent. A hundred percent.
I think that part of the game has changed a little bit, but it's really, all we're doing is we're sharing information more. That's all we're doing. We're just sharing information more. It's better communication is what it is.
Q. You're getting more information from above than he ever got, and now it's on you to implement it below, which is kind of a different role than even a third to half of, you know, managers there seems to be two camps of guys who are like, okay, that's good but I'm going to do this, and guys whose role it is to say all right, this is what the front office wants me to do now, how can I find a way to do it that doesn't alienate my players, that leads to the best result? That relationship now it seems more almost more important than the strategy.
CRAIG COUNSELL: Well, I don't think, I think getting the players to be the best is still your most important job. A hundred percent that's your most important job. There is more information coming. The game has really undergone a great revolution with information, and my thought on it is really just that I have to be able to process it, dissect it and then we have to have a -- I have a conversation with the front office about it, I have a conversation with the players about it and not all it certainly gets through that sifting process and that questioning process. And I think that's part of my job is that it doesn't all get through. That the best and brightest of the ideas get through and make us gets better.
Q. It doesn't get through because it doesn't maybe apply in the way they think it does or --
CRAIG COUNSELL: It doesn't apply, it doesn't apply to the players, or it can't be implemented by the players in real time as fast as the game happens. And a lot of times the front office has to stay on me, to keep pushing the idea on me to say wait, this can be and then we get there. I think that's just progress. That's progress and that's what we're -- that's good, I think that's a good structure in a company.
Q. Speaking of managers, one of the guys that you played for, Buck Showalter, there are three other guys here who are, who also played for him. Was there anything special that you learned from him as a player? I know you only played for him for a year --
CRAIG COUNSELL: Well, Buck was -- the preparation, I guess, and the details were -- there was no detail that he had not accounted for. If you had thought of it, he had thought of it long before you did. That's the feeling I always got from him. So there was never any surprises from him. He wasn't surprised by anything. That's always a lesson with -- I think when you see a manager like that, you're like, "This guy, he's thought of this, he's thinking of it."
If there's 30 hours in the day, it felt like he had 30 hours to think of it, because he knew everything that was going to happen.
Q. What are your thoughts right now at second base? I know you have internal options with [Jonathan] Villar and [Eric] Sogard and maybe Hernan [Perez], but are you guys looking around too to see if that can be strengthened and just what's your thoughts on Villar after one good season?
CRAIG COUNSELL: Well, I think we're in a really good place at second base. Because I think we have very good options and I think there's also a lot of -- but at the same time there's obviously players available at second base. So I thought Neil [Walker], how Neil played last year for us was pretty significant. He played very well for us the last month of the season. He made a big impact on us. I think he was a, really, balance to our lineup. The little bit of versatility helped as well in some spots.
Jonathan, he had a tough year. Guys have tough years. He has a really big year under his belt, too. So that leaves us at "we'll see." I think he's got something to prove certainly, you can't say you know exactly what to expect, but I know that that season that he had in 2016 was a season that certainly earned him the second-base job.
Q. As you think about your players as you went forward last year, for a young guy, pretty internally confident guy, how important was it to have the offensive year? What did that offensive year do for him?
CRAIG COUNSELL: Well, he did have a very good offensive year. I think he probably didn't surprise himself, I think he surprised some other people of how he played. He's got a lot of room left to grow, offensively. I think he knows that. And I still think he has got steps forward left to take. We're talking about a 23-year-old player that is just getting started. There's room for growth, for sure.
So I think obviously the ball-strike recognition is the step to me that just grows with experience, and he's a prime candidate for that to continue to grow as he ages.
Q. Because of metrics these days, do you feel that you're managing against [Mike] Matheny or you're managing against [Joe] Maddon, or has that dynamic changed at all because of some of the extra information that you have and how you want to handle your bullpen and your numbers?
CRAIG COUNSELL: No, I still think there are -- managers are still stylistic. They still have leanings and biases and players they go to in certain situations. So I still think, especially in the division when you are 18, 19 games against a guy, who is managing the team matters, as far as what I'm thinking about during the game.
Q. What are your thoughts on center field? You do have some options. Late last year when games were really important, Brett [Phillips] played a lot of center instead of Keon [Broxton]. What are you thinking there in center with the options that you have?
CRAIG COUNSELL: Well, right now it's the position that we have really good depth at. They're young players, certainly you have to throw into that mix for sure. So I know we have three good young players, and I know two years ago in 2016, we had about eight guys in Spring Training that we didn't know if any of them could play center field or who was going to play center field. I feel like now we have three very good options.
So, we'll have to make a decision and only one guy can obviously play, but that's a place of strength for us, for sure, and that's a nice -- that's a really important position to be strong at. So if there's a spot that is maybe a little undecided but that I think I'm most comfortable with, that's it.
I know we'll have a good option there. Someone will emerge, someone will take it, someone will earn it and we'll have, we'll get really good production out of that position. Or it might be shared. There's a good chance that it could be shared.
Q. Could you share with three guys, though?
CRAIG COUNSELL: I think it would be hard to share with three guys, yeah. I don't think that would be a good fit.
Q. And you wouldn't want them to not be playing that much?
CRAIG COUNSELL: I can't see how that would be productive.
Q. But you could share with two guys?
CRAIG COUNSELL: Certainly, yeah.
Q. Because you need some innings in left field, too?
Q. Sticking with the number three, three years ago when offense was way down, a lot of people were talking about how they think that speed is going to become a big part of the game, like it was in the 1970s. It turns out that didn't happen; we mostly have power. How important is speed now going forward, and how does that factor into your ballclub and your ballpark?
CRAIG COUNSELL: Well, I think that it's a good question, because I really felt like speed would be a big part of the game, too. I still think athleticism is a big part of the game and is a really important thing to have on teams. So the problem is it's one of the harder things to really define the value of it. It's hard to get to a number that puts the value on athleticism. It's hard -- we point it out to our players often, we're an aggressive running team, the threat, what does the threat to run do to a pitcher? If is on first base and we get to a 2-0 count because the pitcher was in a slide-step delivery and the guy gets to a 2-0 count and hits a double in the gap, there is no stolen base there. Nothing happened from that perspective, but was it the threat to run that got the hitter in the 2-0 count and got him in a good pitch to hit?
So that's why I'll always value athleticism, and I think we'll always push the envelope in the running game because I do think those threats, although tough to quantify, matter.
Q. You had a phrase you used a lot about your team, that they enjoy each other's company. When you played, you were a little more reserved than some of your players, and you certainly didn't have some of the things going on in the dugout that goes on in your dugout and also in your clubhouse, too, but it looked like something that really worked for your team and made them, like, have each other's backs. How did you, as a manager, come to an understanding of what was acceptable to you, all the enthusiasm meter and whatnot? Just how did you come to a reckoning with all of that?
CRAIG COUNSELL: Yeah, the players, our guys did a fabulous job of that. You trust them. I mean, it's as simple as that. I trust them. They know the lines, you know what I mean? I think it's really a mutual trust. We trust each other to know where the line is.
Q. Did you ever like see something that made you uncomfortable or did maybe you wish --
CRAIG COUNSELL: Well, there's stuff I wouldn't have done, yeah, but I think that's part of kind of understanding yourself. That's not me, but that was Orlando Arcia and I want Orlando Arcia to be himself. And that's how he gets to the best version of himself, by understanding that it's okay to do that. And we celebrate it. And it turned into fun. It was fun. It was fun. The guys were better players for it because of that.
Q. Another thing that's unusual, a little bit unusual maybe this is the way it's evolving on many teams is a lot of the, for lack of a better word, juice from your clubhouse comes from your group of Latin players and guys already are emerging as almost leaders like Hernan and even [Jesus] Aguilar. Is that unusual to see the Latin players kind of be the fulcrum of camaraderie or just the way your team came together?
CRAIG COUNSELL: I don't think you, I always say that this is like a soup you put together, the ingredients are always a little different. When we show up for Spring Training next year, the soup's going to be a little different.
The leaders are the leaders. The leaders, they kind of rise to the top and I think that a guy like Hernan, he's a leader. He's got leadership qualities. He's a connector of people. He knows baseball very well. Has a great feel for the game. And those people will shine in the clubhouse and on the field and in the dugout. And that's just what happens.
Q. Do you think Arcia is eventually going to get to that?
CRAIG COUNSELL: Yeah, I certainly think he will, yeah. There's a freedom and a passion and a love for the game and a smile on his face as he plays that people will be drawn to.
Q. With all the starting-pitcher focus, when you get up there with Dave and those guys, how focused are they on the bullpen?
CRAIG COUNSELL: Well, as I say, putting innings together to put together a season is what our job is. That can be done in the bullpen. You can put innings together in the bullpen that maybe lessen the need for a guy that you can count on for the huge number of innings.
So I think really it was a big piece of our success. We obviously lost a lot of games in the bullpen, but really it was a function of us playing so many close games. In the end, really, our bullpen was a place that we really leaned on heavily and they got lots of outs, the traditional reliever got lots of outs for us. And it was a successful formula.
Q. Was , like, one of the stories of your year? I'm not sure people outside Milwaukee realize how good he was.
CRAIG COUNSELL: Yeah, we had -- I saw by the end of the year, we had three relievers who we could put in multiple-inning situations, could handle high-leverage situations, could handle right-handed, left-handed hitters, and it made us very tough late in games.
Q. Do you think expanded rosters are inevitable by the way the bullpen situations are going, and that it appears managers would and will need eight and nine relief pitchers, if it continues in this mode?
CRAIG COUNSELL: I don't think that's a good idea. I think the roster, personally, the 25-man roster is a -- it's a challenging roster and it should be a challenging roster for clubs. So I think that's a really good number, I think it's the right number. I think September's number is out of hand. I think it needs to be addressed.
Q. But from the evolving use of bullpen guys --
CRAIG COUNSELL: Well, I think that just because we want to use more relievers, doesn't mean we should get more players. I think our challenge is -- that's part of the challenge of this equation is how to be effective with them, how to keep them healthy, how to keep them effective. That's part of the challenge of this question. I think it's a question -- it should be a challenge. The value of the great starting pitcher, it still should be there. If you start, to me, adding to rosters, it takes away the value of that guy, because the great starting pitcher still is the best pitcher and he should be.
Q. Last year in camp you threw catching open to [Manny] Pina, [Jett] Bandy and [Andrew] Susac, and let it be a three-man competition and Susac got hurt, and the other two emerged. Now that [Stephen] Vogt is also in the equation, how do you look at, and obviously Manny broke through. How do you look at your catching picture, is it still Manny and Vogt the top two guys?
CRAIG COUNSELL: I look at it not that differently than I guess I would have last year. I think that we have to acknowledge -- I certainly acknowledge what Stephen did and what Manny did last year. And 's season was -- in the first half of the year, when we finished 10 games above .500, Jett Bandy was a big part of that. He got into a really a deep, an awful slump, but he was also very good for us the first two months of the season.
So we have three catchers. It's depth. Depth is important. It doesn't let the pieces fit exactly where you want them to fit all the time, but depth allows for unforeseen circumstances, and I think it's so important in a course of a season, it sets a big floor for who you are as a team and I think, so having three guys there, having three guys in center field, that's certainly I think done by design.
Q. A lot of teams are like this, but how important in your situation if you could get a younger, controllable, front-of-the-rotation kind of starting pitcher?
CRAIG COUNSELL: Yeah, I think that we have some, which I think puts us in a pretty good spot. Do you always want more? Yeah, we always want more. But we have some, yeah. We have, to me, three guys. And when we have a couple young pitchers that are pretty darn exciting and then we have a guy named who just keeps getting people out. Nobody wants to talk about him, but he keeps getting people out. He's pitched very well and he's pitched very well in big games. Been given the ball in some big, big games and he's pitched very well.
Look, the loss of Jimmy Nelson it hurts. It's a gut punch, it hurts. And it feels like -- I knew when it happened, I said this is going to hurt more in 2018 than it does the last five starts. We can cover five starts in September with expanded rosters. But in 2018, when you go back to a 25-man roster and you lose a guy that's pitching into the seventh inning three times a month, through the seventh inning, that's when it hurts.
Q. Is Woodruff a pitcher in your rotation in spring or still got to wait and see?
CRAIG COUNSELL: I would say he certainly is in the picture for sure, yeah. I think he got in a really appropriate and valuable amount of experience last year, and it really sets him up -- springboards him to be able to springboard into this year.