SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The shock has not worn off. Craig Counsell’s decision on Monday to leave the Milwaukee Brewers for the Chicago Cubs established a new salary standard for managers, exposed the ugly side of the baseball business and made the Wisconsin native a pariah in a region where he previously was beloved. Other than that, it was a perfectly routine day on the managerial carousel.
The most surprising aspect is not that Counsell left the Brewers, a move that was, uh, brewing for months, but that he left for the team’s biggest rival rather than the New York Mets or even the Cleveland Guardians. Counsell knew fans in Milwaukee would freak out over him bolting for Chicago, given the little-brother, big-brother dynamic between the cities. And he did it, anyway.
The Cubs, meanwhile, knew dismissing David Ross to hire Counsell would be far more unsettling than their decision to dump Rick Renteria for Joe Maddon in 2014. Ross was not some standard-issue manager the front office inherited. He was an integral part of the Cubs’ 2016 World Series championship club, their handpicked choice to replace Maddon. And they fired him, anyway.
Counsell had his reasons. The Cubs had their reasons. The Mets, too, had their reasons for hiring a first-time manager, former Yankees bench coach Carlos Mendoza, without making an all-out effort for Counsell. Which of those three clubs made the best call? Which ones, if any, did not? It might be years before we know the answers. But here are my initial thoughts:
Under Ross, the Cubs under-performed last season. Under Counsell, the Brewers almost always over-performed. So if you’re Jed Hoyer, the Cubs’ president of baseball operations, the appeal of Counsell was understandable.
The Cubs’ collapse in September only exacerbated the difference between the two managers. On Sept. 6, the Cubs trailed the Brewers by just 1 1/2 games in the NL Central and held the second NL wild card. They went 7-15 the rest of the way to finish 83-79, nine games out of first place and one game behind the Diamondbacks for the final wild card.
Part of that is on Hoyer, who failed to adequately bolster the Cubs’ bullpen at the trade deadline. But the Cubs’ expected record, based on their run differential, was 90-72. Their seven-win shortfall was the third-largest in the majors, behind the Padres (-10) and Royals (-8). Hoyer repeated something Tuesday that he said at the end of the season: “We left wins on the table.”
Ross’ biggest shortcoming, in the view of some in the industry who were granted anonymity in exchange for their candor, was that he rode some of his regulars too hard. Left fielder Ian Happ played 158 games, second baseman Nico Hoerner 150. Center fielder/first baseman Cody Bellinger played in 93 of 95 games after returning from a left knee contusion on June 15. Shortstop Dansby Swanson played in 64 of 65 after returning from a bruised left heel on July 22.
Ross, in his fourth season, was…
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