How does Craig Counsell’s arrival change the calculus for Cubs in building roster for 2024 and beyond?
The last time the Cubs fired a manager and made a big splash at the position, they immediately followed the bold move with impactful additions on the roster.
Jed Hoyer was the GM of the franchise when the Cubs let go of Ricky Renteria and made the splash managerial hire of Joe Maddon.
What immediately followed was arguably the best free agent signing in franchise history (Jon Lester) as well as David Ross and others — plus trading for Dexter Fowler and Miguel Montero. The following offseason, the Cubs continued making waves by signing Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist and John Lackey.
With Ross out as manager and Craig Counsell now sporting the largest contract at the position in league history, is that a harbinger of big splashes to come for the Cubs this winter?
“In terms of this offseason, I felt like when we hired Joe, there were a lot of good free agent options that helped us a lot and I think there are in this market,” Hoyer said on Cubs 360 last week during the GM Meetings. “We’ll have to see how it plays out. Obviously the goal is to build on what we had last year.
“We’ll have a lot of trade discussions. We’ll meet with a lot of agents [about potential free agents]. But most importantly for me was it’s not about selling ’24 and what it means; it’s about selling this next wave of talent. This next run. I think that that’s important. It’s not just about one year — it’s about a lot of years.
“We’ll keep making really good decisions but I do feel like in that world to try to grab as many wins as possible I think we upgraded [with the Counsell hire].”
The headlines this offseason will be dominated by the most intriguing free agent we’ve ever seen in this sport — Shohei Ohtani.
Obviously the addition of Ohtani to this Cubs roster would qualify as “building on” the 2023 team, even though he is not expected to pitch next season. The Cubs need a feared middle-of-the-order hitter, they need power and they need a left-handed bat.
Ohtani checks all those boxes — and serves as a likely frontline starter at some point in the future (though that aspect of his game is certainly now a question mark after his second major elbow surgery).
Because he stands as a true unicorn and carries the injury concerns, it’s impossible to try to predict what kind of contract Ohtani will command in free agency. Will he look for a shorter-term deal with a high yearly salary and then hit free agency again in a few offseason to cash in when he is fully healthy?
The Cubs will surely be in the Ohtani market, but are they in a position to beat out every other MLB team on a megadeal?
“We do have available resources,” Hoyer said on the day the Cubs introduced Counsell as the new manager. “I don’t look at this as a one-year situation. I want to look at it over the next few years.
“I certainly want to supplement this roster and continue the trajectory we’re on but I don’t think the signal is that we are going to be out in the market incredibly aggressive. We’ll continue to make the smart moves that will make us better and we have the resources to do that.”
That certainly falls in line with Hoyer’s rhetoric since he took over as the Cubs’ chief decision-maker. He has often thrown out phrases like “intelligent spending” while retaining financial flexibility for the short- and long-term.
Beyond Ohtani, there are other intriguing free agents on the open market. The Cubs are absolutely open to bringing back Cody Bellinger and Japanese right-hander Yoshinobu Yamamoto represents the most interesting arm available as a 25-year-old with ace-caliber stuff.
Then there’s the trade market, as stars like Juan Soto, Pete Alonso and Tyler Glasnow are rumored to be available.
Hiring Counsell is not an indicator that the Cubs are going all-in this winter. But the addition of Counsell alone likely won’t be enough to get the Cubs over the hump and into the playoffs, especially with a roster that is currently missing Bellinger and Marcus Stroman from the 2023 group.
With Stroman opting out of his deal, that frees up $21 million for Hoyer’s front office this winter. Heyward’s contract is also off the books now, though the Cubs still owe money for players not on the 40-man roster ($7 million for Trey Mancini, $3.25 million for Tucker Barnhart and $5.5 million for David Bote).
An important facet of the Counsell hire is that it is a long-term contract (5 years). The Cubs clearly aim to contend over the life of that deal and won’t mortgage their future entirely to prioritize a single season like 2024.
“I’m really excited about our direction and where we’re going and actually our building process,” Hoyer said at GM Meetings last week. “Certainly I sold Craig really hard on that. Not only the core of players that we have on the team, but also the young players we have that are sort of like mounted on the board so to speak and then I also feel like we have financial flexibility.
“So I believe in that and I don’t think that we signaled that we’re gonna have some crazy, aggressive offseason. But certainly I really like our position and if there are moves — even big moves — that will help us continue that trajectory, we’ll definitely do it. But I don’t think it’s a signal that somehow we’re gonna have the biggest and boldest offseason. If we do, it’s because things lined up for us.”