Why Cubs president Jed Hoyer hired Craig Counsell and fired David Ross

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz — The day after blindsiding David Ross, Chicago Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer did not sound at all conflicted about the decision to fire his manager. The sneaky, awkward way this unfolded won’t matter if Craig Counsell lives up to his contract as the highest-paid manager in baseball history and delivers a World Series trophy to Wrigley Field. This is the business they’ve chosen.

Hoyer met with Ross in Florida on Monday to deliver the bad news and then traveled to Arizona for Major League Baseball’s general manager meetings, where Counsell’s decision stunned the industry officials gathered at the Omni Scottsdale Resort & Spa at Montelucia. Hoyer contained this information to a very small inner circle that included chairman Tom Ricketts and general manager Carter Hawkins. Counsell condensed his negotiating process with the Cubs into a five-day window that started Nov. 1 once his contract with the Milwaukee Brewers expired.

In hindsight, this shouldn’t have been so surprising. The Cubs did something like this before by firing Rick Renteria to hire Joe Maddon. Counsell is a Wisconsin native and a Notre Dame graduate who wanted to stay in the Midwest and see the salary scale for managers skyrocket. Hoyer is a hyperrational executive with an outgoing personality and a ruthless edge.

“My job is to figure out how to win as many games as we possibly can in the short term and the long term,” Hoyer said Tuesday. “There was nothing about this move that I didn’t feel like met that criteria. This is no knock on Rossy, who I think incredibly highly of. I just felt like Craig is at the very, very top of the game.”

Would David Ross have been safe if the Cubs hadn’t collapsed at the end of the 2023 season? (Nick Turchiaro / USA Today)

The stakes were different after the 2014 season — the Cubs weren’t as invested in Renteria and Renteria didn’t have the same stature in Chicago that Ross enjoyed — but Theo Epstein and Hoyer set this precedent when they recruited Maddon once the star manager opted out of his contract with the Tampa Bay Rays. The Cubs never regretted that decision, even as Maddon’s relationship with the front office eventually unraveled.

Epstein and Hoyer groomed Ross to be Maddon’s replacement, believing the leadership skills he showed as a role player on the 2016 World Series team would again resonate in the clubhouse and the dugout. Epstein and Hoyer hoped they had their answer to Counsell, whose Brewers kept up with the defending champs for most of the 2017 season and then chased down the Cubs to force a Game 163 and win the division title in 2018.

As the Cubs missed the playoffs while carrying the National League’s highest payroll in 2019, the Brewers won 89 games despite finishing with a plus-3 run differential. Hoyer used a football analogy to explain Counsell’s preparation and acumen while running a small-market team.

“My thought on Craig, as I’ve always watched him against us, was the Bum Phillips quote about Bear Bryant where he says, ‘He’d take his and beat yours, and take yours and beat his,’” Hoyer said. “That’s kind of how it felt sometimes watching him. He was just getting the most out of his teams over and over and over.”

Ross made the best of a difficult situation in 2020, winning a division title and making it through the 60-game season without a player testing positive for COVID-19. Epstein then exited the Cubs with a year remaining on his contract to make way for Hoyer, his longtime colleague going back to their time with the Boston Red Sox and the end of another long championship drought.

Faced with a drastically reduced budget for baseball operations, Hoyer traded Yu Darvish to the San Diego Padres and released Kyle Schwarber rather than offer him a contract through the arbitration system. Hoyer unloaded Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Javier Báez for prospects at the 2021 trade deadline and showed no interest in bringing them back as free agents. Coming out of MLB’s lockout, 2022 was an obvious rebuilding year. A defining feature of this front office has been the disciplined, unemotional approach that led to Hoyer finalizing Counsell’s five-year, $40 million contract and then firing Ross.

“That’s my responsibility,” Hoyer said. “That’s the job that Tom has given me. I feel like I learned a lot from Theo, going back to being with him from the very, very beginning when he was 28 or 29 years old and trading the franchise shortstop (Nomar Garciaparra) for a couple guys that are good on defense. You have to be willing to take risks. You have to be willing to make really hard and unpopular decisions.

“Yes, it was incredibly hard to let Rossy go. I felt like it was my responsibility to the organization to do that. That’s why I can sit here and say, ‘Yeah, I think Rossy is a very capable manager and he’s going to have a really bright future.’ I thought the best thing for this fan base was the move that I made.”

After the Cubs swept the San Franciso Giants out of Wrigley Field in early September, their playoff odds soared to almost 93 percent, according to FanGraphs. The Cubs then lost six of seven games against the Arizona Diamondbacks. That 11-day stretch saw three one-run losses to the Diamondbacks (two in extra innings), an 84-win team that got hot at the right time and reached the World Series.

The Cubs notched their 83rd win on the second-to-last day of the season, when they were eliminated from playoff contention, negating the chance to start Justin Steele in Game 162 and make a run in October. We’ll never know what Hoyer would have done if the Cubs had won one more game and snuck into the playoffs, but the wasted opportunity gnawed at him as Counsell explored his options.

“It’s a hypothetical that I don’t have to answer,” Hoyer said. “Whether our season had played out in a smooth way — or whether the ups and downs happened or not — I think I said at the end of the year something to the effect of, ‘I think we left wins on the table.’

“I still feel that way now. We had a plus-96 run differential. I think we were the only team that was above average in run prevention and run scoring to not make the playoffs. It does bother me. That’s not on one person. That’s on me and every person in the organization. But it felt like we left wins on the table, regardless of the way it happened.”

The Cubs did not enter this year with sky-high expectations, but Hoyer clearly believes that the bigger issue was how the players were utilized more than how the roster was constructed.

Hoyer, who’s under contract through 2025, did not get an extension to sync up with Counsell’s deal. The Giants, as an example, announced an agreement on a contract extension for Farhan Zaidi when they introduced Bob Melvin, putting their president of baseball operations and new manager on the same timeline through 2026.

Hoyer described it as “a very hard, emotional conversation” with Ross, who represented the organization in a genuine way, understood the passion at Wrigley Field, maintained order in the clubhouse and unified a good coaching staff.

“I think the world of him,” Hoyer said. “He’s got an amazingly bright future. He’ll clearly land on his feet and have a great career in this game for a long time. But there was a suddenness to all of this that was unavoidable but unfortunate.”

(Top photo of Jed Hoyer: Michael Reaves / Getty Images)

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