Saturday, July 20

Baseball conflicted in aftermath of Craig Counsell’s ‘managerial Hunger Games’

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — As soon as reports of Craig Counsell’s surprise destination circulated online, one National League executive, unprompted, texted a reporter two exploding head emojis along with three letters: WTF. When asked to elaborate, the executive explained, “It’s a lot to digest. I am not sure what’s more shocking — where he landed or how much he got.”

Counsell became the highest-paid manager in baseball on Monday, when word emerged that he’d be the next Cubs skipper. This was particularly notable because the club already employed a manager in David Ross. Now Ross is out of a job and Counsell has a new five-year, $40 million deal, the end result of an unexpected development that sent shockwaves throughout the industry.

Almost no one knew about Chicago’s secret courting of Counsell, who had been linked to multiple teams with managerial vacancies. The Athletic spoke to nearly a dozen people around the game, granting anonymity as needed so that employees of other organizations could speak freely, in order to survey the ripple effect that Counsell’s decision might have on managerial jobs and baseball as a whole.

“About time managers get paid what they’re worth,” one current big-league manager said. “(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 told The Athletic that he had once been in the same position as Counsell: offered a job that was currently occupied by someone else. He declined it because “it just felt wrong” and wonders why the “brotherhood” of managing seems to have gone by the wayside. This former manager said he is a fan of Counsell, though he doesn’t know him well, but pointed out that the new Cubs skipper hasn’t won a World Series and thought the hysteria and bidding war surrounding him was a bit much.

“(Bruce) Bochy? Now if it was Bochy I’d understand,” he said of the reigning World Series champion Texas Rangers manager.

When The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal reported that Counsell would manage in 2024, but it would be for a team without a known opening, the Rangers were a common guess in the industry as his landing spot, with the assumption that Bochy was retiring and that Counsell was his replacement. Then the rest of the story came tumbling out: Per Rosenthal, Counsell was headed to the North Side.

“I was a little like ‘whoa.’ Not surprised because there’s been managers that have made 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. “It was quick. Kind of out of nowhere. But I’m happy for him. He’s been a lifer in the game and he’s done some wonderful things.”

Said another former skipper: “Craig Counsell is an elite manager. Look at his record in one-run games. Look at his record compared to projections year after year. He deserves to be paid.”

Some in the game believe Counsell’s deal will help drive up salaries for other skippers in the future: “a bigger piece of the pie,” as one agent put it.

“The truth is, no one will ever realize their maximum value until or unless you’re willing to be a free agent,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “That’s just the fact of the matter. Counsell was willing to do that. Players do it every year. It shouldn’t be looked at as taboo for a manager to exercise his right to become a free agent. I think the industry has sort of frowned upon that and I give Counsell a lot of credit and respect for talking through it with his family and being willing to do that.”

Others were skeptical that it would make any meaningful change.

“Look at what the Mets just paid (Carlos) Mendoza,” said an American League exec of the Mets new skipper, who is making $4.5 million total for three years, much less than Counsell. And, even if it’s ultimately a good thing for manager salaries, some questioned the ethics of the Cubs waiting to dismiss Ross until Counsell had agreed to take the job.

“The reason manager and coaches’ salaries don’t move much is because someone is always willing to take your job,” a current member of a major-league coaching staff said. “If I had fought for another 40K or another year they wouldn’t have renewed me as a coach. I don’t know how much front offices really value (the contributions). I don’t think Counsell changes that much because look at what the Mets just did.

“I think the only time it would really change is if people really roll the dice and say, ‘I think I’m worth more than that,’ and take the risk. But there’s always someone willing to take your job. We really need to unionize, but look at how long it took the minor-league players to form a union. It’s still a culture of ‘be glad you have a job.’”

It’s the “managerial Hunger Games,” a 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 take Rick Renteria’s place 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 a former manager. “I’m glad Counsell came out and said the bar needs to be set higher for manager salary, but I’m not sure I would have taken a job where there was a manager already in place.”

Are the optics really that bad? Hoyer told reporters at the GM meetings his job is to win as many games as possible “in the short term and long term” and there was “nothing about this move” to get Counsell that didn’t meet that criteria.

In that vein, Ross was just a casualty in an industry often mercilessly seeking an edge.

“If you take away the emotional aspect of it and look at it from a pure business standpoint, it happens in every company,” said another current manager, who thinks Counsell’s deal will be good for the other 29 teams. “Baseball is entertainment, but it’s a business and these transitions take place frequently (in business). In our industry, it’s looked at as taboo.”

The same manager believes that the Cubs were ultimately doing Ross a disservice by publicly saying he was their guy — and then privately trying to upgrade.

“If I’m in an organization that doesn’t value me I don’t want to be there,” the manager said. “To me, the intimacy of those relationships (between a front office and manager) are what we are looking for. My bosses provide that in making me feel valued and thankful for the work I’m putting in.”

Even Counsell’s former boss was surprised.

“I didn’t see that coming,” said Mets president of baseball operations David Stearns, who was with Counsell in Milwaukee. “Craig can play things pretty close to the vest. In this case, clearly he played it very close to the vest, because none of us had any idea of where this was headed.”

(Top photo of Craig Counsell as Brewers manager: Patrick McDermott / Getty Images)