SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — As reports of Craig Counsell’s surprise destination spread online, a National League executive, unprompted, texted a reporter two exploding head emojis plus the three letters: WTF. When asked to elaborate, the executive explained, “Ang daming digest. I’m not sure what’s more surprising — where he ended up or how much he got.
Counsell became the highest-paid manager in baseball on Monday, when news broke that he would be the Cubs’ next skipper. This is particularly notable as the club already employs a manager in David Ross. Now Ross is out of a job and Counsell has a new five-year, $40 million deal, the result of an unexpected development that sent shockwaves throughout the industry.
Almost no one knows about Chicago’s secret courtship of Counsell, who has been linked to multiple teams with managerial vacancies. The Athletic spoke with about a dozen people around the game, granting anonymity as necessary so employees of other organizations can speak freely, to assess the ripple effect Counsell’s decision could have on managerial jobs and baseball as a whole.
“It’s about time managers are paid what they’re worth,” said one current big league manager. “(Having) no coaches union has hurt this part of our game for years. Hate it for Rossy, but love what Craig did for the industry.”
A former manager said The Athletic that he was formerly in the same position as Counsell: offered a job currently occupied by another. He rejects it because it “just feels wrong” and wonders why management’s “brotherhood” seems to have disappeared. This former manager said he was a fan of Counsell, although he didn’t know him well, but pointed out that the new Cubs skipper had not won a World Series and thought the hysteria and bidding war surrounding him was a bit many.
“(Bruce) Bochy? Now if it was Bochy, I would understand,” he said of the reigning World Series champion Texas Rangers manager.
When The AthleticCounsell’s Ken Rosenthal reported that Counsell will manage in 2024, but for a team with no known opening, the Rangers are the industry standard guess as his landing spot, assuming Bochy retires and Counsell is him. exchange Then the rest of the story unfolded: Per Rosenthal, Counsell was headed to the North Side.
“It was a little bit like ‘whoa.’ Not surprised because there are managers who do that much. But still, the way it happened,” said Astros general manager Dana Brown, who had interest in Counsell for the Astros’ open position due to Dusty Baker’s retirement. “Just fast. Kind of out of nowhere. But I’m happy for him. He’s been alive in the game and he’s done some great things.”
Another former skipper said: “Craig Counsell is an elite manager. Look at his record in one-run games. Look at his record compared to year-to-year projections. He deserves to be paid.”
Some in the game believe Counsell’s deal will help increase pay for other skippers in the future: “a bigger piece of the pie,” as one agent put it.
“The truth is, nobody knows their maximum value until or unless you’re ready to be a free agent,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “That’s just the truth. Counsell was willing to do that. Players do this every year. It should not be viewed as illegal for a manager to exercise his right to become a free agent. I think the industry frowns a little on that and I give Counsell a lot of credit and respect for talking to his family and being willing to do that.
Others are skeptical that it will make any significant difference.
“Look what the Mets paid (Carlos) Mendoza,” said one American League exec of the Mets’ new skipper, who is making $4.5 million over three years, less than Counsell. And, while ultimately a good thing for the manager’s salaries, some questioned the ethics of the Cubs waiting to fire Ross until Counsell agreed to take the job.
“The reason managers’ and coaches’ salaries don’t move much is because there’s always someone willing to take your job,” said a current member of a major-league coaching staff. “If I had fought for 40K or another year, they would not have renewed me as a coach. I don’t know how much front offices really appreciate (the contributions). I don’t think Counsell made that much of a difference because you look at what the Mets did.
“I think the only time this will really change is if people really roll the dice and say, ‘I think I’m worth more than that,’ and take a risk. But there’s always someone willing to take your job. . We really need to unionize, but look at how long it takes minor-league players to form a union. It’s still a culture of ‘be happy with your job.'”
It’s the “managerial Hunger Games,” one former manager joked before pointing out some history. The scheme from Cubs president Jed Hoyer took a page from former executive Theo Epstein, who hired Joe Maddon to replace Rick Renteria after the 2014 season. (Renteria’s contract was terminated a week after Maddon opted out of his deal with the Tampa Bay Rays.)
“It’s in their playbook,” said one former manager. “I’m glad Counsell came out and said the bar needs to be higher for manager pay, but I’m not sure I’d take a job where there’s a manager in place.”
Are the optics really that bad? Hoyer told reporters at the GM meetings that his job is to win as many games as possible “short-term and long-term” and “there’s nothing about this move” to get Counsell that doesn’t meet that standard. .
In that vein, Ross is just a casualty in an industry that often ruthlessly seeks an advantage.
“If you take away the emotional aspect of it and look at it from a pure business perspective, it happens in every company,” said another current manager, who thinks Counsell’s deal will bode well for other 29 teams. “Baseball is entertainment, but it’s a business and these changes happen often (in business). In our industry, this is viewed as taboo.”
Both managers believe the Cubs are ultimately doing Ross a disservice by publicly saying he’s their guy — and then privately trying to upgrade.
“If I was in an organization that didn’t value me I wouldn’t want to be there,” the manager said. “For me, the intimacy of those relationships (between a front office and manager) is what we are looking for. My bosses give that to me by making me feel valued and appreciated for the work I put in.”
Even Counsell’s former boss was surprised.
“I didn’t see that coming,” said Mets president of baseball operations David Stearns, who is with Counsell in Milwaukee. “Craig can play things pretty close to the vest. In this case, he obviously played it very close to the vest, because none of us had any idea where it was going.”
(Top photo of Craig Counsell as Brewers manager: Patrick McDermott / Getty Images)