Ricketts, Counsell pin focus on roster in place

February 20th, 2024

MESA, Ariz. -- Craig Counsell got in front of players and staff from throughout the Cubs’ organization on Monday morning and discussed the importance of connectedness. The way the Cubs’ new manager views things, everyone listening to his words in the auditorium will have a role to play in the season ahead.

Counsell cracked a smile one day earlier when asked if it would be a motivational speech.

“I really think how we interact every day, that becomes the motivation,” Counsell said. “We’re not filming a movie.”

Maybe not, but things didn’t go according to script last year, and this is a Cubs team that wants to get back to a place where a Hollywood ending is possible once again. Consider Counsell the experienced director, coming in to get more out of a cast that features plenty of characters reprising their roles from last season.

Coming off an 83-win showing with a September fade that ended with Chicago narrowly missing the playoffs, the Cubs are counting on improvement from within and a boost from additions like starter Shota Imanaga and reliever Héctor Neris. The question hovering over the Cubs is whether that will be enough to reach the postseason.

“Absolutely,” Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts said. “I think we’ve added some parts that are going to be really, really beneficial to the whole. And I don’t see any reason why we wouldn’t be favored for our division this year.”

Counsell was asked about Ricketts saying the Cubs should be the favorites to claim the National League Central crown.

“That's good with me,” said Counsell, who reached the playoffs in five of the past six seasons as manager of the rival Brewers. “I think that's where you set your expectations every single year, so there's no reason we should have lower expectations than that.”

Counsell noted that Ricketts took the manager and his coaching staff out to dinner on Sunday night, giving them a chance to get to know one another a little more. One thing Counsell is learning is that, while Ricketts will discuss aspects of the baseball side, the team’s chairman prefers to let president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer and his front office make the final decisions.

That has included the talks with free-agent center fielder Cody Bellinger, who thrived for the Cubs last season and remained a favorite among the players in camp with Chicago. Multiple Cubs have voiced that they would like the club to re-sign Bellinger, but Hoyer has held the line with his valuation and talks remain at a stalemate.

“Jed does a really nice job,” Ricketts said. “He definitely sees that you can only spend every dollar once, and he knows that you don't want to have too many long-term contracts when you have a lot of young guys that are coming up through the Minors.”

Anyone hoping for a recreation of the Dexter Fowler surprise re-signing in the spring of ‘16 walked away disappointed on Monday morning. The only thing happening on Field 6 at the Cubs’ complex was live batting practice. Lefty Drew Smyly and righty Daniel Palencia threw to hitters. Bellinger did not emerge from the batting cages to join them.

Bellinger -- along with free agents Matt Chapman, Blake Snell, Jordan Montgomery and J.D. Martinez -- is represented by agent Scott Boras. At this point, Ricketts said the Cubs are just in wait-and-see mode on the Bellinger front. There have been discussions, but “it hasn’t become a negotiation,” said the Cubs' chairman.

“I’m like everyone else. We’re just waiting,” Ricketts said. “We’re waiting for whenever he and his agent are going to engage. It could be any time now, or it could be a few weeks. We’ll just see where it goes.”

In the meantime, the Cubs are focused on the group that filled the diamonds throughout the complex on Monday morning.

The Gold Glove middle-infield duo of Dansby Swanson and Nico Hoerner anchor an elite defense. Seiya Suzuki is coming off an impressive second half and might be a breakout candidate. Pete Crow-Armstrong, Michael Busch and Jordan Wicks look like the start of a wave of prospect talent feeding the MLB club from one of baseball’s top systems.

“There are a lot of great internal things that are going on,” Swanson said. “At the end of the day, we are excited, now that camp has fully started, about what's ahead of us. And I think things will only continue to get better.”

And it will require more than a motivational speech from Counsell.

“Really, this is the start of something,” said the manager. “And it’s on all of us to make it look like the way we want it to look.”