Chicago Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer had said all the right things for months in support of David Ross.
Even when scrutiny on Ross’ performance became heightened in June when the Cubs slipped 10 games below .500, Hoyer continued to believe in him. At the end of the season, after a three-week September collapse dropped them out of playoff position, he backed his hand-picked manager. Hoyer, though, has shown a willingness to make tough decisions when he believes it benefits the organization.
A covert recruitment of managerial free agent Craig Counsell was the latest shrewd maneuver by Hoyer that landed the Cubs one of the best in the game for a record contract at the expense of parting ways with Ross. But that was a price Hoyer was willing to pay. The Cubs want to harness the way Counsell and the Brewers consistently outperformed expectations during his nine seasons at the helm.
Counsell always seemed to get the best out of his roster.
“My job is to figure out how to win as many games as we possibly can in the short term and the long term, and there was nothing about this move that didn’t feel like met that criteria,” Hoyer said Tuesday at the MLB general managers meetings. “There’s no knock on Rossy, who I think incredibly highly of, but I just felt like Craig is at the very, very top of the game.
“It was a really hard decision and obviously some really hard conversations around with that. But I felt like it was just the right thing to do.”
Could Ross have unknowingly saved his job had the Cubs not blown their hold on a playoff spot in the final weeks and instead earned a wild-card spot? This hypothetical scenario for the 83-79 Cubs and the speculation of whether he would have pursued Counsell had that come to fruition was a hard question to answer, Hoyer said. However, he pointed to the Cubs’ plus-96 run differential — fourth-best in the National League — and their above-average run prevention, which featured three Gold Glove award winners, yet still falling short of the postseason.
“At the end of the year I said something to the effect of I felt like we left wins on the table and I still feel that way now,” Hoyer said. “… To not make the playoffs, it does bother me. And that’s not all 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 because I do think it was amazingly impressive to win like we did for those three months.”
As Nov. 1 approached — when Counsell became a free agent, thus not requiring the Cubs to get permission from Milwaukee to talk to him — Hoyer chatted a little bit with chairman Tom Ricketts about the possibility of bringing the Brewers’ longtime manager to the North Side. However, through October, the circle within the organization who knew of Hoyer’s thinking was “as small as you could make it” because “we have had a very capable manager (in) Rossy, there was a real sensitivity toward it.”
Hoyer flew to Ross’ home in Tallahassee to deliver the news in person Monday. General manager Carter Hawkins made most of the calls informing players of the move. Hoyer wanted to keep the details of the emotional conversation between them but described Ross’ reaction as “amazingly respectful.” The hardest part, Hoyer said, was thinking about Ross’ tenure and the tough moments they had gone through together: the pandemic-shortened 2020 season for Ross’ first year, selling the 2016 World Series championship core at the trade deadline in 2021 and the roster fallout from taking that path.
“He was a great partner through all of that,” Hoyer said. “I think the world of him. I think 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 this that was unavoidable but unfortunate.”
Hoyer felt the organization needed to be opportunistic to seize the chance to hire Counsell, adding that taking this route does not mean he thinks Ross was the wrong hire before the 2020 season.
“You have to be willing to take risks and you have to be willing to make really hard and unpopular decisions and I’ve had to make a lot of those decisions, and ultimately what I always try to get to a point of is if it’s a really hard decision and I’m willing to make it, then I feel like that means I’m doing the right thing for the organization,” Hoyer said. “Yes, it was incredibly hard to let Rossy go. I felt like it was my responsibility to the organization to do that.”
With Counsell in the fold, the next step is sorting out who will remain from the Cubs’ coaching staff. Roughly a half dozen conversations Monday centered on the topic, Hoyer estimated, as Counsell began the process of making calls. Hoyer anticipates a lot of the 2023 coaching staff will be back, though there might be some reshuffling of roles. Counsell has asked Hoyer for feedback but it will be the new manager’s decision.
“Clearly you don’t give him the contract we gave him and make that aggressive move in order to handpick a staff for him,” Hoyer said. “Let him get a week or so under his belt and we’ll have a better feel for that.”