Craig Counsell to Cubs: Ex-Brewers manager burns bridges to join team willing to spend to win

If you want to win a few titles, gotta burn a few bridges, apparently. 

Craig Counsell, a Milwaukee native who has been with the Brewers organization continuously since 2007 as a player, front-office type, radio voice or manager, left his hometown team in the lurch on Monday afternoon, in one of the most stunning managerial developments in baseball history. 

After leading the Brewers to five playoff appearances in the past six years, Counsell is the new manager of the Chicago Cubs. 

Yep, you read that right. Not only did Counsell leave the Brewers after his contract expired, but he left his old club for a rival in the same division. And not only did he leave his hometown club for a rival in the same division, but he took over a job that was not open until the moment he was hired. David Ross was the Cubs manager, and he’d gotten all the “votes of confidence” from front-office/owner types that one deems vital after an up-and-down season. 

Ross, it seems, is now out of a job. 

“Shocking” hardly seems to do this development justice, and “angry” hardly seems to do justice to the way Brewers fans are reacting to this news. Thing is, they’re absolutely justified to be angry, hurt, disappointed, all those things. Counsell was one of them, a beloved figure who was helping his hometown club beat the odds — low payroll, as dictated from above — and find a way to compete. 

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And now he left for their most hated rival. Even if Counsell has reasons that might be understandable in a vacuum, Brewers fans have every right to turn their ire toward their former manager. The hero has become the villain. Won’t take long for at least some of that anger to turn toward ownership, where much of it belongs.

Why did Craig Counsell leave the Brewers for the Cubs?

Stepping back, it makes sense. Everybody’s going to point to the money the Cubs gave him, and that’s not insignificant, in its impact on Counsell’s bank account or the commitment it shows to competing at the highest level. The Cubs offered a jaw-dropping number, $40 million over five years. No other manager in baseball comes close.

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But that’s not the root of the issue. If money was the only problem, Counsell probably would have taken the Brewers’ offer, which still would have made him the highest-paid manager in the game, though still less than what he accepted from the Cubs.

Counsell wasn’t 100 percent thrilled with his job in Milwaukee, only to be blindsided by Chicago’s offer. There’s a reason he managed out the last year of his contract with the Brewers, even though the club would have loved to lock him up long-term. There’s a reason he’d already interviewed with the Guardians and with the Mets.

Counsell wanted a better chance to compete for championships. 

Want a perfect example of the issues with the Brewers? You just have to look back at a move the front office made on Saturday, trading Mark Canha to the Tigers. Canha had an $11.5 million club option for 2024 that the Brewers had no intention of exercising, even though Canha had been great in his short time with Milwaukee. Acquired in a trade-deadline deal with the Mets, Canha posted a 120 OPS in his time with the Crew and injected some much-needed offense into an often slugging lineup. 

Still, the Brewers weren’t interested in retaining Canha. But other clubs saw that price tag for a productive hitter/clubhouse leader and said, ‘Yes, please.” So the Brewers traded the right-handed hitter to the Tigers — a club that hasn’t been .500 since 2016 — and Detroit immediately, happily welcomed Canha to their team.

Imagine not being able — sorry, willing — to compete with the Tigers for productive players on one-year deals.

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And it wasn’t just that one instance, of course, but years and years of the same thing. A couple years ago, the Brewers traded away closer Josh Hader despite being in the thick of the playoff race. The writing is on the wall with ace Corbin Burnes, too — a free agent at the end of the 2024 season, he will almost certainly be traded this winter. After this development, he might publicly demand it. 

With the Cubs, Counsell is free from the nickel-and-dime mentality he dealt with under Brewers owner Mark Attanasio, who bought the club in 2004 for $223 million and has seen the franchise value soar to an estimated $1.605 billion. Still, payrolls remain tight. 

Counsell did the best with what he was given to work with, and said the right things. But, yeah, it had to be draining. It had to be frustrating seeing most of his best players leave — Christian Yelich being the exception — or the guy he wanted to add in the offseason choose other, more lucrative offers. He won’t have to deal with that in Chicago. The contract he agreed to shows the Cubs’ commitment to spending to win.  

The Cubs might not sign Shohei Ohtani this offseason, but they might. It’s a possibility. They might not trade for Juan Soto and agree to a long-term extension, but they might. It’s a possibility.

Right now, anything seems on the table. After all, they just gave their new manager $40 million to burn a few bridges.

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