‘As advertised’: Cubs manager Craig Counsell making strong first impression

‘As advertised’: Cubs manager Craig Counsell making strong first impression

Cubs manager Craig Counsell had each of his coaches write out a theoretical lineup. He wasn’t going to use any of them for opening day; the Cubs aren’t done adding this winter, and upcoming moves could change the coaches’ answers. But he knew the exercise could be helpful. 

“It was interesting,” he said in his Cubs Convention session Saturday. “I wanted to learn what people within the organization think about players that maybe I hadn’t thought about.”

He took more from where his coaches put each player in the field – Morel “got mentioned at about five positions” – than the batting orders they came up with. He also learned more about the people on his staff, which included plenty of coaches from the former regime. And the exercise showed something about the man who implemented it, one of the best managers in the game, who was seeking input. 

Counsell’s tenure with the Cubs began in dramatic fashion. The news that the Cubs had fired David Ross to replace him with Counsell shook the baseball world in November. 

Left-hander Justin Steele said he was working out with strength coach Keegan Knoll at the Cubs’ Arizona complex when Knoll received an email on his phone with the information. 

“We were just like, ‘What? What’s going on?’” Steele said. “Two minutes later, it’s on the TV, and we’re stopping the workout.”

The consensus among coaches and players was that they were shocked. President of baseball operations Jed Hoyer had revealed his pursuit of Counsell to very few people in case he chose a different team.

“A lot of emotions,” pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said in a conversation with the Sun-Times. “It definitely caught us off guard. We were already working and planning on things for next year.” 

Veteran right-hander Kyle Hendricks, who was World Series teammates with Ross, called him “the best manager I’ve had up to this time.” Left fielder Ian Happ, who invited Ross to his wedding this winter, said he considers Ross a great friend. 

The shock wasn’t just professional, but personal. Running counter to it was the promising news that Counsell was coming to town.

“He came as advertised,” Hottovy said. “Very intelligent, on top of a lot of different things, has got some very refreshing ways of thinking about things, but also keeps things very simple. Very simple. It’s like, this is how we do it, don’t overthink it.”

As Hottovy has gotten to know Counsell better, he’s grown excited about the amount of freedom he’ll have to coach and impact areas he’s passionate about. That will show up in plenty of different ways. For example, Hottovy said, there will be some individual-focused days in spring training when coaches can work one-on-one with players for longer blocks of time. 

Counsell has earned a reputation for his in-game moves.

“He was always really good with the matchup stuff,” Happ said of facing Counsell’s Brewers for years. “They always had a good bullpen but he always ran the bullpen really efficiently. He was always making frustrating moves as an opposing hitter. And it felt like it was always the guy you didn’t want to face, and he would stick to it.”

But game management, while important, is only one aspect of the job. 

Hoyer recalled in the baseball operations panel Saturday a prescient moment in a whirlwind hiring process. He and Counsell were talking about game strategy – Counsell remembers the conversation hinging on bullpen management – and Counsell basically said not to hire him for strategy. 

“He launched into all the team building and stuff, and the culture, and what he created,” Hoyer said. “It was just such a great moment because I think oftentimes people focus on the X’s and O’s, which he’s very good at, but he sees himself as a team-builder, a roster-builder, just a guy who is very good at bringing the entire group together.” 

That process, though in its infancy, has begun.

“We haven’t lost a game yet, so that’s certainly helpful,” Hoyer quipped Friday. 

It’s easy to espouse praise before going through the ups and downs of a season. Counsell hasn’t even written out his first Cubs lineup. But he’s made a strong first impression, even after a shocking changing of the guard. 

“Manager means you’re like managing people,” Counsell said. “So you want to be around the people you’re managing. And being around players, being around the coaching staff this week, it’s great to, one, start those relationships, and then just really starting to get to work planning spring training and talking to coaches about how we’re going to approach things.”