Hoyer on hiring Counsell: 'He's at the very, very top of the game'

November 8th, 2023

CHICAGO -- It was simply an opportunity that Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer could not let slip away. Given his admiration of Craig Counsell from afar, and the trajectory of a Cubs team expecting to return to the October stage next year, Hoyer decided it was the right time to make a difficult decision.

Hoyer stunned the baseball world on Monday by not only hiring Counsell to be the 56th manager in Cubs history, but also making him the highest-paid manager in baseball history. It was a sudden development that meant David Ross was dismissed after four challenging seasons in the manager’s chair.

“It just felt like an exceptionally hard decision, but one that I felt like I had to make,” Hoyer told reporters at the GM Meetings on Tuesday in Scottsdale, Ariz. “From my perspective, my job is to figure out how to win as many games as we possibly can in the short term and in the long term. And there was nothing about this move that I didn't feel like met that criteria.

“There's no knock on Rossy, who I think incredibly highly of. But I just felt like Craig is at the very, very top of the game. It's hard to rank managers, but certainly he's at the very, very top of the game.”

Counsell is set to be officially welcomed as the Cubs’ new manager in a press conference at Wrigley Field early next week.

Sources told MLB.com's Mark Feinsand that Counsell's pact with the Cubs is a five-year deal worth a record $40 million. The Brewers made an offer weeks ago that would have made Counsell MLB's highest-paid manager -- in the neighborhood of $5 million per year, according to MLB.com's Adam McCalvy.

While setting a new salary standard for MLB managers was part of the equation, the 53-year-old Counsell told McCalvy in a phone conversation Tuesday that he was also intrigued by the new challenge that the Cubs offered. It helped that the Wisconsin native was able to maintain his Midwest roots for his family in the process.

“It’s a challenge with an organization that is very much in a good place and is just primed to do some special things,” Counsell said. “That part of it certainly is exciting and alluring. You know it’s a challenge. It’s going to be hard. It’s scary, because change is scary. But sometimes you need to push yourself out of that comfort zone and it makes it exciting.”

Counsell was known to have also met with the Mets and Guardians about their managerial vacancies. In nine seasons with the Brewers, Counsell guided the club to three division titles, five playoff appearances (all within the past six years) and a 707-625 record (.531 winning percentage) in the regular season.

The winningest manager in Brewers history, Counsell’s ability to get the most out of his roster really started to stand out to Hoyer during the 2017 season. The Cubs were the reigning World Series champions and Milwaukee was hanging with them in the division race deep into September.

“That team had no right to be there,” Hoyer said. “That made us play to the last week of the season, and from a talent standpoint, that just wasn’t close. That was probably the time we were like, ‘What are they doing?’”

The Cubs waited to reach out to Counsell until Nov. 1 -- after the manager’s contract with the Brewers had expired. That removed the requisite step of asking permission from Milwaukee to interview the manager (which the Mets and Guardians did earlier in the process). That kept the Cubs’ approach quiet and set the stage for the surprising deal to swiftly come to fruition.

Hoyer met with Counsell, but kept the circle of people looped in on the situation extremely small. He said the former Brewers manager pushed Hoyer on explaining the Cubs’ plans for 2024 and the years to come, and Chicago’s front-office leader was blown away by how Counsell spoke about his approach to managing.

“He’s unbelievably sharp. That’s as simple as I can say it,” Hoyer said. “Talking to him about clubhouse stuff, blending the clubhouse with analytics, and the best way to get the most out of people was incredibly impressive. And just his sense of what his job entails and the responsibility of his job, it really stood out to me.

“This guy wants to handle every single part of the process, and views that as his responsibility. And to me, that’s really impressive, the way he views his chair. It’s so much more than making in-game moves. He views the totality of everything as his responsibility and he talked about that in an amazingly articulate way.”

Ross managed the Cubs to a 262-284 (.480 winning percentage) record over the last four years, while leading Chicago to an NL Central title in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. Across the 2021-22 campaigns, Ross steadied the ship as Hoyer made a series of blockbuster trades that dismantled the previous core led by Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Javier Báez and others.

“He was a great partner through all that,” Hoyer said.

Following an aggressive offseason of spending last winter -- headlined by the seven-year, $177 million contract to lure shortstop Dansby Swanson to Chicago -- the North Siders looked to be on their way to a playoff berth in ‘23. The Cubs then dropped 15 of their final 22 games to fall out of contention.

Ross, 46, was under contract through the 2024 campaign (plus a team option for ‘25) and was praised at season’s end for his work in guiding the Cubs through a turbulent summer. Both Hoyer and team chairman Tom Ricketts raved about how Ross kept the team focused all season.

The change in direction with Ross -- a beloved member of the 2016 World Series championship team -- is reminiscent of when the Cubs hired Joe Maddon away from the Rays ahead of the 2015 season. That played a role in Chicago turning the page on a rebuild and entering a stretch of four straight playoff appearances, including three consecutive trips to the National League Championship Series.

Hoyer delivered the news to Ross in person in Florida on Monday.

“We've been through a lot together,” Hoyer said. “Obviously, it was a very hard emotional conversation. But I think the world of him, I think he's got an amazingly bright future. He'll clearly land on his feet and have a great career in this game for a long time. But there was like a suddenness to all of this that was unavoidable.”