Craig Counsell was officially introduced as the 56th manager in Chicago Cubs history during a Monday morning press conference at Wrigley Field. This event wasn’t nearly as raucous as when Joe Maddon bought a round for the press corps at The Cubby Bear, but I caught a really good vibe from it and felt Counsell made a strong impression. He was pensive and deliberate with his answers, something he echoed when speaking about the process he’s taking with players and staff as he eases into the new role.
Jed Hoyer opened the proceedings by lavishing praise on his new manager, after which Counsell offered his own thanks to the requisite parties. He appeared to be almost in awe of everything, noting that the history and energy of his new home ballpark is something he craves. Rather than deflect them, he said the expectations that come with the gig are exciting.
“This is right, man, this is special,” Counsell said. “It’s time to be a Cub.”
One of the biggest themes of the day was working to establish strong personal relationships with everyone in the organization, from the front office to the players. Counsell spoke more than once about being able to let players have the courage to be themselves. It’s impossible to quantify the impact a manager has, but he explained that his job is to put players in the best position to succeed mentally and as teammates and then just let the chips fall where they may.
That’s perhaps easier in the regular season, when managerial decisions and player performance will bear out over the course of the marathon. The playoff sprint introduces a lot more luck, so it’s sometimes necessary to be more aggressive with those decisions. Counsell said his experience over the years has helped him to hone what might otherwise be seen as “gut” calls. Just like his players, a manager needs to have the courage to be himself and be convicted in his choices.
Part of that is knowing how to balance player development, which doesn’t stop with a promotion to the big leagues. Major League Baseball is hard, Counsell noted, and massive struggles through the transition to the highest level are the norm even if fan expectations don’t think that should be the case. As such, it’s imperative to create empathy and allow young players to get to a better place mentally so they can work through the process.
That was probably my favorite part of the presser and it’s one area I believe the Cubs prioritized when it came to hiring Counsell to replace David Ross. It’s not so much that the former skipper didn’t understand the concept, but he seemed to have very little patience for rookies as the pressure to win overrode the need to help them navigate their growth. He flat-out said as much at one point. Even for the best teams, maybe especially for them, it’s both possible and necessary to balance winning with development.
Ross and the Cubs weren’t able to do that very well last season and it may have cost them both a trip to the postseason and some future performance from their prospects.
The primary thread running through this presser was that Counsell is maintaining a very steady pace with everything. His hiring was such a whirlwind that he wants to make certain to take his time and do everything right when it comes to communicating with his players and staff. He declined to comment on any coaching choices, so it may be a while before we know who’s staying from the old staff and who’s coming in from Milwaukee.
Early speculation has Tommy Hottovy and Dustin Kelly remaining in Chicago, then you’ve got the news that John Mallee was hired back just a few days before the Counsell announcement. Though Counsell hardly knows any of the Cubs coaches who might be working with him, we probably won’t have to wait too long to find out their fates because the team will want to have things solidified ahead of their big offseason moves.
As for what kind of splashes they’ll make, Counsell said understanding the team’s financial commitment to building a better roster was a big part of his conversations with Hoyer. The manager reiterated several times that he was sold on the overall health of the organization, so we’ll see how everything plays out over the next several weeks.
Many industry insiders believe the Cubs will pull off at least one big trade, plus they’ve been connected to several players in free agency. Exactly how they go about navigating the offseason and building their roster is a work in progress, but making the huge move to bring in the game’s highest-paid manager set a precedent and put at target on their collective back.
“There’s pressure in this job, man, there should be,” Counsell admitted. “I welcome that and it should be there. There’s a financial component, but my job is to win baseball games no matter what.”