The Chicago Cubs fired manager David Ross and hired Craig Counsell on Monday. The longtime Milwaukee Brewers manager was lured to Chicago with a record-setting five-year, $40 million contract, sources familiar with the deal told ESPN.
The moves, which the Cubs announced Monday afternoon, stunned the baseball world, which had seen Counsell's return to Milwaukee or hiring by the New York Mets as the likeliest outcomes. The Cubs had publicly praised Ross, with owner Tom Ricketts saying Oct. 2: "He's our guy."
When Counsell's contract with the Brewers expired Oct. 31, the Cubs moved quickly to indicate their interest and offered a deal that shattered the salary scale for current managers. The previous high average annual value for a manager was Terry Francona with the Cleveland Guardians at $4.5 million.
Counsell, a longtime leader with the Major League Baseball Players Association during his 16-year career, sought to lift managerial salaries during his free agency, and the Cubs obliged, more than doubling his previous salary of $3.5 million and lifting him into an echelon previously reached only by Joe Torre with the New York Yankees.
The move was reminiscent of 2014, when Chicago fired manager Rick Renteria in the middle of his contract and hired Joe Maddon, who two years later led the team to a World Series title after 108 championship-free seasons.
Chicago fired Maddon following the 2019 season and turned to Ross, who had retired as a player after helping lead the Cubs to the World Series in 2016. A first-time manager, Ross led the Cubs to a National League Central title in the COVID-19 shortened 2020 season. Following a pair of down years that coincided with the Cubs trading core members of their championship run, they rebounded in 2023, going 83-79 but losing a playoff berth with a late-season swoon.
Counsell's hiring brings a sense of urgency to a team with postseason aspirations. In his nine years as Brewers manager, Counsell won three NL Central titles and managed them to the postseason in five of the past six years, including a division-winning 92-70 mark this season.
A Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin, native who grew up just 15 minutes from the Brewers' ballpark, Counsell owns the Brewers record for the most wins (707) and playoff wins (seven). The team had not been able to replicate its run to Game 7 of the NL Championship Series in 2018, going 1-8 in the postseason since.
Counsell's success with a low-payroll team like the Brewers -- and the respect it has engendered him -- made him a desirable choice for any team seeking a new manager. He was long tied to the Mets, whose new president of baseball operations, David Stearns, was in charge of Milwaukee's baseball operations for most of Counsell's tenure in Milwaukee. The Mets instead hired Carlos Mendoza, the former Yankees bench coach, to replace the fired Buck Showalter, sources told ESPN. The Guardians, who had also expressed interest in Mendoza, on Monday chose two-time All-Star catcher Stephen Vogt to fill the void left by the retiring Francona.
The Cubs' poaching of Counsell was seen around baseball as a shrewd coup, and it aligns with their intentions to spend in free agency and add to a team that took a significant step forward in 2023 after the signings of Gold Glove shortstop Dansby Swanson and outfielder Cody Bellinger, who opted out of his contract and was tendered a qualifying offer Monday.
Chicago's farm system is regarded as one of the best in baseball, with center fielder Pete Crow-Armstrong and right-handers Cade Horton and Ben Brown primed to contribute to the 2024 team and with outfielders Kevin Alcantara and Owen Caissie pushing for big league time. Chicago returns starters Justin Steele and Kyle Hendricks, whose $16.5 million club option was picked up, and boasts three Gold Glovers with Swanson, second baseman Nico Hoerner and left fielder Ian Happ, all of whom are under contract through at least 2026.
The Brewers' future is slightly more muddled, with ace Corbin Burnes and shortstop Willy Adames set to hit free agency after 2024, but their farm system, which has consistently produced major league players, could see a rash of promotions among top prospects. Outfielder Jackson Chourio, regarded as one of the best players in the minor leagues, could debut early in the season, just after his 20th birthday. Third baseman Tyler Black could fill the position after the Brewers used seven players there last season. And right-hander Jacob Misiorowski, who might have the best raw stuff in the minor leagues, jumped to Double-A in 2023 and could see a similar ascent in 2024.
The Brewers will return most of their team from last season, though co-ace Brandon Woodruff could be non-tendered after undergoing shoulder surgery that is expected to keep him out for most of the 2024 season, and left-hander Wade Miley opted out of his deal for next year.
In a statement, Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said: "Today we made the difficult decision to dismiss David Ross as our major league manager. On behalf of the Cubs organization, we express our deep gratitude for David's contributions to our club, both on and off the field. First as a player and then as a manager, David continually showcased his ability to lead. David's legacy will be felt in Chicago for generations and his impact to our organization will stack up with the legends that came before him."
Counsell will be formally introduced at Wrigley next week, Hoyer said.