Craig Counsell believes Cubs are on precipice of being great: ‘It feels close’

CHICAGO — Craig Counsell said all the right things at his introductory press conference. He pointed out the history of the organization and beautiful Wrigley Field. Just upon his initial arrival to Chicago, he felt the energy of the city and understood that this type of place “demands your best.” The Wisconsin native did all but scream, “Go Bears!” to win over a fan base that was largely already over the moon about the hire.

Counsell seems to thrive off pressure and expectations. Both will certainly be ramping up in his life in the coming months. It’s what team president Jed Hoyer sold him and what Counsell truly believes stood out.

“I saw quickly that the organization is just in great health,” Counsell said. “Jed presented a very compelling vision of that. It is time to be a Cub. There is momentum happening here and it feels close. That means there’s a very exciting future ahead of us. Now it’s my job to be part of taking us to the next level. That’s the plan.”

After an 83-win season that saw them finish just one game short of the playoffs with an 84-win team making a run to the World Series, “close” is a very apropos descriptor. But what is left unsaid is that they’re not there yet. As Counsell himself admitted, he’s only one part of taking this to the next level. More work needs to be done.

“What you have to be careful about is what happened last year does not indicate this year,” Counsell said. “Teams are different. There’s a soup made. It can be the same players, but it’s going to taste a little different next year when Grandma makes it. It’s always a little different and you have to create a new dynamic next year no matter what’s going on.

“But there’s a solid core and solid foundation. That speaks to the health of the organization and that speaks to a bright future.”

Counsell makes a good point by reminding everyone that each year is its own entity. Even within a season, teams change. Cubs fans should know that well having seen the difference between the group that played in May and the one that performed in August.

There are certain knowns, of course.

“Well,” Counsell said when asked what he doesn’t have to worry about upgrading this winter, “I think the defense in the middle of the field is, yeah, it’s good.”

That’s a simple enough answer considering Dansby Swanson and Nico Hoerner, the Cubs shortstop and second baseman, both won Gold Gloves. There are some other things he can feel good about. Justin Steele has emerged as a Cy Young Award candidate. Ian Happ provides a consistently patient bat and Yan Gomes is as steady behind the plate as they come. After very rough patches for both early on, Seiya Suzuki and Jameson Taillon also showed what they can be.

But what exactly their seasons will look like in 2024 is very hard to predict. They should all help, but to what extent is unknown. Regardless, Counsell knows this soup isn’t finished. The Cubs are more of a miso and fans are ready for a heartier beef stew.

The sexiest and most obvious way to push their way into dominance is to go wild in free agency and empty the farm system in the biggest trades.

“Free agency is fun,” Counsell said. “It’s fun to talk about, it’s fun to write about. I think it’s certainly on the table. Probably the mission for Jed is, ‘What’s the best way to build something that can last for a long time?’”

Craig Counsell said Cubs GM Jed Hoyer has asked for his input on the team’s roster. (Kamil Krzaczynski / USA Today)

Of course, fans want Shohei Ohtani and Aaron Nola. They dream of bringing back Cody Bellinger, signing Yoshinobu Yamamoto and trading for Juan Soto. It’s OK to let imaginations run wild because the Cubs are in a spot where they are capable of doing many different things. That may not be what Hoyer has done during his short tenure as team president, but aggressive spending has to be a consideration.

“When I say the organization is in a healthy place, my perspective of that is he has all those options on the table to do that,” Counsell said. “Obviously free agency can get you in a lot of trouble. There’s certainly the ability to do it, the ability to talk about anything I think. Jed made that clear. That’s exciting. I think how you build a team that’s going to continually compete, it certainly takes more than free agency.”

Counsell said roster building is “Jed’s job” but that Hoyer has asked for his input. Counsell wants to share it as well. Their philosophies seem to align when it comes to this aspect of the game. Hoyer often talks about just being right and making good decisions, no matter how big or small, and piling them upon each other. So it must have been music to his ears listening to his new manager talk about how he views building a team.

“I have this philosophy of just stack little good decisions on top of each other,” Counsell said. “All those good decisions have now formed the backbone of your organization and you’re sitting in a very, very strong place. So get the little things right and the little decisions right and keep getting that next decision right. That’s where it adds up over time and that’s when you wake up one day and your organization’s in an incredibly strong place.”

FanGraphs’ most recent update has their farm system at No. 1 in baseball. Most agree it’s at worst a top-five system. Even with the departure of Craig Breslow, they feel like player development is in a strong place and many of their recent draftees are opening eyes. A solid amount of the best players from last year’s team are under control for at least three years at reasonable prices and plenty of money has come off the books, meaning there is a core in place and financial flexibility.

These are the moments Hoyer — like most heads of baseball operations — dreams of. Does he love this free-agent market? That’s one question to ask. But by adding Counsell and paying him a salary worthy of the best manager in the game, he’s signaled that it’s time to get serious about winning.

Hoyer isn’t one to admit to the baseball world that the Cubs are opening the vaults and spending aggressively. It may have been hard to imagine him signing Swanson to a seven-year, $177 million deal a year ago. But that’s the player he identified as his most desired and that’s where the market took him. Nobody saw the Counsell move coming and while rumors will fly about who else is headed to Chicago, Hoyer will continue to keep things close to the vest.

“There’s a lot of choices of how to do it,” Counsell said. “That’s exciting. There’s several ways to attack the problem. It offers the ability for Jed to be very creative and use any one of those means to do so. In the end it’s going to be some blend of all that that gets it done. I think that gives him a really good chance of him being right at this and this being successful.”

Hoyer knows, just like Counsell, that he has various options on how to attack this winter. All that matters is if he’s right.

(Top photo of Craig Counsell: Kamil Krzaczynski / USA Today)

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