NASHVILLE, Tenn. — When Cubs manager Craig Counsell positioned himself in front of an MLB-branded backdrop for his winter meetings availability this week, it marked the second time he would address Chicago reporters in his new job.
Already, musings on his managerial philosophy are filling in the gaps regarding what to expect from him.
Just as almost a decade of managing against the Cubs gave Counsell a head start on his knowledge of the team, the Cubs’ front office, their fans and the local media got to learn about Counsell at the same time.
President of baseball operations Jed Hoyer applauded Counsell for his track record of leading overperforming teams. Fans on social media pointed to his well-documented tendency to err away from bunting. And his strong reputation for bullpen management preceded him.
In his first month on the job, Counsell has given further insight on topics ranging from his role in player development to his opinion on six-man rotations.
“After you go through cycles of players, you start to learn how hard the transition is to the major leagues for players,” Counsell said in his introductory news conference last month. “The norm is a massive struggle. That’s the norm. And if you come at it from that place, the problem is that expectations for those players are on the other side of the spectrum. And that’s a hard thing for everybody to balance.”
This past season, slugger Matt Mervis and No. 1 prospect Pete Crow-Armstrong debuted with such lofty expectations. Mervis hit .167 in 99 plate appearances. Crow-Armstrong is still looking for his first major-league hit after 14 at-bats.
“Trying to create some empathy there with that and some understanding with that for the players, and just for the group, all of us, is probably the most important thing to do,” Counsell said of his role in players’ transition to the majors. “And the goal of that is just so that the player gets in a better place, and the player doesn’t have so much on his chest coming into the park every day and knowing he has to do everything for everybody. Because that’s what he feels like.”
“Positional versatility creates a good floor for your team so that when things inevitably happen to your team during the season, you’re choosing from better options than just one option,” Counsell said this week. “And so that’s where the players that have defensive versatility are incredibly valuable players.”
On the Brewers last season, Brian Anderson, Andruw Monasterio, Owen Miller, Luis Urias and Mike Brosseau were among those who played multiple positions.
The topic arose in a conversation about utilityman Christopher Morel’s best defensive position.
“I think Joe [Maddon] is very similar; he loved to move guys around,” Hoyer said. “And I think Craig’s the same way. And finding players that are versatile, that can do a lot of different things, I think is going to be a goal.”
“It’s a pitching staff as a whole you have to look at,” Counsell said. “It is different every single season. It changes from the first day, to the 60th day of the season, to the 120th day of the season. And to understand that — that it’s always changing, that it’s never the same, that there is no one rule you can live by in your bullpen — I think is the best way to have a chance to do it successfully each year.”
The Brewers also developed two elite closers in Counsell’s time at the helm: Josh Hader and Devin Williams. But Counsell said he hadn’t uncovered some magic formula.
“Teams are composed differently, and they’re made up differently,” he said. “You have to take advantage of the strengths of your players — find their strengths, understand their strengths, listen to their strengths — and that means that it may be different. So the goal is certainly to find players of that caliber. Of course, that’s the goal. But those aren’t easy players to find.”
It’s too early to talk about how the Cubs will order their rotation next year. Offseason additions and spring-training performances will affect those decisions. But as his time with the Brewers showed, Counsell is open to experimenting with setups outside of the traditional five-man rotation.
“There are times in the season when, do I think [a six-man rotation] is helpful for the starting pitchers? Absolutely. I think it’s helpful,” Counsell said. “But I think it has to work [with your personnel], and you can’t do it and let it affect the rest of the roster, or affect the team to the point where you either lose games or you cost yourself big games down the road.”