Perhaps my favorite moment during Craig Counsell’s conversation with Jon “Boog” Sciambi came when he discussed having a bit of an underdog mentality coming from Milwaukee. He followed up a discussion of how he’ll keep that mindset with him despite the bigger stage when he said, “You don’t think I can do it? Watch.”
It’s early in Counsell’s tenure in Chicago, but I have a hunch we’re all going to enjoy watching him manage this Cubs team quite a bit.
The conversation was revealing in numerous ways, for example, when he was asked how he’d go about moving from an organization he knew so well in Milwaukee to a new team in Chicago. He paused for a second and then said he was torn between wanting to jump right in and waiting until he got to Mesa to see the players for himself so as to not bias himself about the current crew. It was a thoughtful answer and was emblematic of the empathetic approach that Jed Hoyer and Carter Hawkins eluded to earlier when they described his ability to connect with young players.
That same set of soft skills was on display when Counsell was asked about one of the newest additions to his team, Shōta Imanaga. While Counsell got to the fly ball rates and his pitching game eventually, it’s not what he led off with. He started the conversation noting how hard it must have been for Imanaga to deliver his opening message in English and crediting him for having so much poise and confidence introducing himself to fans:
Shōta Imanaga is going to fit right in at Wrigley Field. pic.twitter.com/pVTjXQbXqW— MLB (@MLB) January 12, 2024
Crawly led off the questions again and asked about prospect playing time, giving guys rest during the season and bunting. Counsell didn’t beat around the bush and said, “The best players play, we’re trying to win games, that’s how it’s going to be.” He added that baseball has so many numbers and young players don’t have that stat line yet so you have to take a leap that this is going to be a young player, you want them to play but they have to earn it.
The rest question got a little lost in the responses, but Counsell’s answer regarding bunting made up for it. He began by acknowleding that his record will show he doesn’t like to bunt. He noted that bunting is about the situation and whether the player is good with it, and while he concluded that there were times and players where bunting was a good strategy, he noted that bunting is much harder than people think. “We love the word sacrifice and we all want to sacrifice for the team, that’s true, but if the sacrifice isn’t successful it doesn’t help the team.” I imagine Cubs fans will see a lot fewer bunts with Craig Counsell at the helm.
Another fan asked about bullpen management and Counsell was transparent that bullpen usage changes a lot during the course of a season. He acknowledged that at the end of Spring Training eight to nine guys will be in the bullpen and those roles will shift over the course of the season. Boog followed up with a question about roles and how much those are discussed with players, Counsell acknowledged the importance of transparency with roles and not changing those quickly, but as Boog quickly suggested, he agreed bullpens are fluid and things will change.
Counsell was asked about lineup construction and kept it simple again: the best hitters should hit the most. It was interesting that Counsell described an exercise where he asked each coach to write their own lineup and submit them to him. I wonder if those lineups will influence his decisions or whether they are more about getting to know his new staff. Either way, I loved it as a process for getting to know the new team.
Boog asked if Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy submitted a lineup and Counsell clarified that Hottovy was given a different assignment regarding pitchers. That led to one of my personal favorite moments of the morning as Boog noted that the Cubs organists play “Hot Stuff” every time Hottovy visits the mound. Counsell followed up with a joking anecdote that acknowledged how great the Cubs organists are at staying in the game with references. He blamed a few bad moves on being distracted by the exceptional music choices that John Benedeck and Josh Langhoff make each game.
The transparency, thoughtfulness, self-deprecation about his own playing career and the easygoing jokes Counsell displayed in front of a packed house at the Sheraton on a chilly January weekend were the perfect introduction to his new fanbase in Chicago. His acknowledgement of the magic at Wrigley Field and the experience of playing on the North Side of Chicago all hit the right notes. And I keep coming back to the fact that the highest paid manager in baseball has the smallest bit of a chip on his shoulder as a player and manager. It’s hard not to have that edge, coming from a smaller market to the third largest media market in the country. Counsell is clearly a fierce competitor and I imagine the Cubs will benefit from that mentality in 2024 and beyond.