By Patrick Mooney, Sahadev Sharma, Ken Rosenthal, and Tyler Kepner
In a calculated move that stunned the baseball world, the Chicago Cubs are hiring Craig Council to replace David Rose, the club announced Monday, immediately raising expectations at Wrigley Field.
According to Major League sources, the Cubs will offer Counsel a five-year contract worth more than $40 million, making him the highest-paid manager in Major League Baseball.
Counsell, who led the Milwaukee Brewers to the playoffs in five of the past six seasons, was widely considered to either stay home in Wisconsin or take on a new challenge with the New York Mets. A final decision is expected this week during MLB’s general manager meeting in Arizona. But the Cubs have done this before.
President of baseball operations Jed Hoyer was involved in one of these stealth efforts as Theo Epstein’s general manager. When Joe Maddon became a free agent after the 2014 season, Cubs executives didn’t hesitate. Knowing the talent in the organization and the resources at their disposal, the Cubs fired Rick Renteria after just one season. Madden signed a five-year deal that immediately paid off with 97 hits in 2015 and a 2016 World Series title.
Hoyer has to hope Counsell’s small-market success translates the way it did for Madden after his run with the Tampa Bay Rays. The Brewers chasing the Cubs in 2018 — and winning Game 163 at Wrigley Field — became one of the most heated moments in Madden and foreshadowed the end of that championship team.
Hired early to replace former teammates Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Javier Baez, Rose faced unimaginable challenges as a new manager in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. The Cubs managed to win a division title, then went into a drastic cost-cutting regime, trading Yu Darvish to the San Diego Padres that winter and completing sales at the next two trade deadlines.
After the Cubs spent more than $300 million on free agents, scrutiny of the game’s results increased exponentially this year. Rose is seen as a strong communicator who commands respect from players. His steady personality helped dig the Cubs out of 10 games under .500 in June and forced the front office to add this time at the trade deadline. Hoyer praised the team’s preparation and consistent effort.
In what was considered a transition year, the Cubs won 83 games, played an entertaining style of baseball and were in playoff contention until the final weekend of the season. During the 162nd game in Milwaukee, Cubs president Tom Ricketts praised Rose as “a great manager” and declared, “He’s our guy.”
As Jon Lester’s personal catcher, Rose helped end a 108-year World Series drought. After retiring as a player, Ross worked as a special assistant in the front office with Epstein and Hoyer. Rose made so many connections – and showed enough promise as a manager – that Renteria seemed hard to treat.
Ross couldn’t keep his job after an epic September slump and became a free agent with one of the best managers in the game. The Cubs-Brewers rivalry will now go to a whole new level.
“Today we made the difficult decision to fire David Rose,” Hoyer said in a statement. “On behalf of the Cubs organisation, we express our deepest gratitude for David’s contributions to our club, both on and off the pitch. First as a player and later as a manager, David continued to demonstrate his leadership ability. David’s legacy will be felt in Chicago for generations, and his impact on our organization will be stacked with the legends that came before him.
With his contract, Counsell takes on an important new position for a manager who has been heavily involved with the MLB Players Association during his 16-year playing career.
“Having represented Craig on the Council for nearly 30 years and having lived in Chicago my entire life, I am excited to see Craig take on a new challenge,” Barry Meister of Meister Sports Management, Counsel’s agent, said in a statement. “Cubs fans are getting an amazing manager and an even better person. Craig is admired and respected by the Brewers franchise, general manager and fans throughout Milwaukee, where he built his home. He will have lifelong friends and memories made as part of the Brewer family. He’s excited about Chicago, and glad that more teams are beginning to embrace the improved appreciation of the major-league manager’s job!
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Here’s how Cubs players respond to the move
The move obviously shocked the baseball world, but Cubs players were also shocked by the hiring. Clubhouse Ross retreated, even after the September collapse that led to their collapse in the playoffs and allowed the blame to spread. But none of the players are ready to point the finger at Ross.
At the end of the day, they saw him as someone who had their back and was a positive influence in his ability to hold the team together during very difficult projects. But there was awareness that Rose was not moving the needle. His playing tactics were sometimes questioned, and much of that fell to bench coach Andy Green. — Sahadev Sharma, a small writer
Questions about the Cubs’ coaching staff
Beyond how that happened and what’s next in terms of roster-building, most of the questions now are whether the coaching staff will remain largely intact. The Cubs have long admired the work of pitching coach Tommy Hattovy. Both the front office and the players believe he is the best in the game at his job. The Cubs finally found stability with coach Dustin Kelly overseeing an offense that was very effective in the game this past season.
Greene interviewed for a pair of administrative jobs that she ultimately didn’t land, but will she be Counsel’s bench coach? Veteran coach John Malley was recently promoted to the big league staff after a year as the Triple A hitting coach. All of that seems up in the air right now as the Cubs make a dramatic and unexpected change in the face of their team. — Sharma
What is the mindset of a consultant before free agency?
When I spoke to Council in September about Brewer’s continued success, he was clearly interested in where he stood in the market for managers. “I’m not under contract, so if other people ask, I’m not going to ignore it,” he noted.
Given Milwaukee’s status as the smallest market in the majors, owner Mark Attanasio has funded competitive salaries. But I wondered if the team’s spending limits would be a determining factor in the council’s future. That is, did he think the club could really compete for the Championship – and if not, would he want to leave?
“I don’t know if that’s ever going to be the primary (reason) you say you want to leave,” he said. “I don’t think that’s it, because the whole point of why we’re talking is that you don’t have to (spend lavishly) to win. You don’t need to, you have to. I know a small market hasn’t won recently; a bunch of them have put themselves in a position to do that. .But let’s just say that only one team won it.
By October, the Brewers were moaning once again. Milwaukee has won at least 86 games in each of the last six 162-game seasons, a streak matched only by the Dodgers and Astros, but has yet to win a pennant. Counsell has deep ties to his hometown team, but also a history as a union representative during his playing days. A five-year, $40 million deal from the rival Cubs proved impossible to turn down. — Tyler Kepner, senior MLB writer
What are Brewers?
It feels like a turning point for the Brewers. Brandon Woodruff may have lost one of their top starting pitchers in 2024 after shoulder surgery, and another, Corbin Barnes, may take a while to step up.
Burns faces free agency after the 2024 season and teams will almost certainly make trade offers to general manager Matt Arnold. The Brewers already began trimming payroll by trading outfielder Mark Canha to Detroit over the weekend, and have only one player signed for more than $6 million next season (Christian Yelich, more than $24 million).
Milwaukee has a promising farm system and athletic, speedy defenders. But that’s the second-worst .385 slugging percentage in the National League — topped only by the Giants — and it’s going to take a lot of money to give this roster a realistic shot at a championship.
The Brewers have resisted the full-scale tear of other small-market teams, but there’s no indication they plan to suddenly become big spenders. — Kepner
What is the council’s heritage with the Brewers?
It’s a powerful one: Counsell is the winningest manager in club history, with a 707-625 record from 2015 to 2023. The team has reached the playoffs nine times since arriving in Milwaukee in 1970, and Counsell has managed five of those teams. He led the Brewers to within one win of the 2018 World Series, falling to the Dodgers in the seven-game NLCS.
Counsell was associated with the Brewers’ other four playoff teams — when his father, John, worked for the team in the 1980s and was a player in 2008 and 2011. Counsell attended Whitefish Bay High School. His family in the community. But he won his championship rings elsewhere (as a player with the Marlins and Diamondbacks), and is now heading out of town again to pursue another. — Kepner
(Photo: Brandon Slaughter/Getty Images)