In early December 2021 I was grumbling to myself about free agent signings and deals right before the lockout as I was walking to get coffee. It was right after now World Series champions Marcus Semien and Corey Seager signed approximately $500 million worth of contracts with the Texas Rangers and I distinctly remember thinking “if the Cubs were really serious about competing, they’d sign Marcus Stroman before the lockout.” It was mere minutes before the deal was announced and forced me to reconsider what exactly it was Jed Hoyer was trying to accomplish at that moment in late 2021.
I truly did not believe Hoyer had another big move like that in him because so much of what the Cubs President of Baseball Operations does is carefully calculated within the safety of 60-80th percentile outcomes. But credit where it is due. Monday, Jed Hoyer absolutely stunned me in the best of possible ways when news broke that the Cubs had come to terms with former Brewers manager Craig Counsell on a 5-year, $40 million contract. There are dozens of reasons this is an interesting move. We got into a few of them on the emergency podcast episode of Cuppa Cubbie Blue that you can listen to below:
However, for the purposes of this article I’m going to focus on three of the most interesting financial implications of the Counsell signing.
How many wins is a manager worth?
Wins above replacement can be tricky to discuss, even among players. For example, are you going to use bWAR as calculated by Baseball Reference or fWAR as calculated by FanGraphs? Even beyond that, it’s imperfect. Mookie Betts and Ronald Acuña Jr. were both worth 8.3 FanGraphs WAR in 2023 but does that mean the Los Angeles Dodgers and Atlanta Braves both won 8.3 games due to their stellar efforts in 2023? What would 0.3 games of a win even look like? At the end of the day a baseball game is the combination of hundreds of little moments that impact each other from pitch selection to swing decisions and base running strategy to game defense — but we like measuring things so we keep at it.
It’s even more difficult to figure out how many wins a manager is worth, although that hasn’t kept baseball analysts from trying over the years. It seems pretty clear that the Cubs are banking on Counsell calling the shots from the dugout being worth at least a few more wins than David Ross. Interestingly, the number I kept seeing bandied about over the course of yesterday was five, so with the obvious caveat to take this with a massive grain of salt, what are five wins worth in Major League Baseball?
On the player side, the answer is a lot. FanGraphs has looked at this periodically and for the 2022 season, Ben Clemens used their methodology to estimate that teams were paying $8.5 million per WAR for players above replacement in free agency. Players below replacement value (0-2 fWAR) still commanded about $6.5 million per WAR. The Cubs will pay Craig Counsell $8 million per year for the next five years, making him the highest paid manager in MLB. That contract is $4 million per year more than what the team was paying David Ross as the manager. Looked at from this perspective, upgrading the manager position could be seen as a remarkably cost-effective way to add a few wins for a team that missed the playoffs by merely one game in 2023. Notably, manager and coach salaries do not count towards the luxury tax, so that additional $4 million a year will not impact the Cubs’ ability to make deals with free agents this offseason.
Now, no one expects managers to make Aaron Judge money for calling the shots from the dugout, but MLB manager pay has lagged considerably behind some other sports. Craig Counsell was explicit that he wanted to use this opportunity to set a new market rate for MLB managers, and he did, as this graphic clearly demonstrates:
Craig Counsell said he wanted to set a new market for how Major League Baseball managers got paid.— The Athletic (@TheAthletic) November 6, 2023
He did that.
Here's a look at the top-paid coaches in men's sports: pic.twitter.com/tg8yIOvKyd
It will be interesting to see if this contract winds up being a one-off for one of the best managers in baseball or if it will raise the bar more generally. The Athletic noted that Counsell was heavily involved with the MLB Players’ Association during his playing time, so it makes sense that he’d prioritize the labor environment for his colleagues as one of the key factors to consider as he weighed his options. Counsell will be the highest paid manager in MLB history, the previous record was Joe Torre’s $7.5 million deal with the Yankees.
It is a bit of a quirky juxtaposition with the particular situation with David Ross, however. That is one colleague who is definitely not benefitting from Counsell’s expanded search.
What does this mean for free agency?
While there is no guarantee that the Cubs will make more big moves this offseason, I have to believe that Counsell received some assurances about the future roster during this interview process. It was widely reported that one of the reasons he was considering bigger market teams like the Mets was joining a team who could devote more resources to players. This move signals a seriousness about the Cubs willingness to compete that should correspond with increasing those resources as The Athletic’s Jon Greenburg noted yesterday:
But here’s where Counsell’s job is going to change, just like it did for Maddon going from Tampa Bay to Chicago: Now Counsell has to win in the postseason. Milwaukee made it to the NLCS in 2018, where they lost in seven games to the Dodgers, but they’ve won one total playoff game since. The Cubs hired Counsell to get back to the World Series.
He will have bigger payrolls and more resources in his new job and with all of that comes higher expectations he will surely welcome. Counsell looks nice, but he’s shown he’s a winner.
And the Cubs certainly have roster holes to fill. Cody Bellinger was a huge part of the Cubs hottest streaks last year and will test the open market after a resurgent 2023. Both first base and third base were problem spots for the Cubs this season that will need to be addressed through free agency. Marcus Stroman opted out of the last year of his contract, which opens at least one rotation spot. As much as I like Javier Assad, I’d like him much more as the sixth or seventh starter for a team that plans on contending.
Yesterday’s news is not merely great news for MLB managers as they look to negotiate their next contract, it should signal great news for premier free agents as the Cubs signal that they are going to start acting like a big market team again in one of the weakest divisions in baseball.