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Milwaukee Brewers show faith in Craig Counsell’s ability to handle the challenges of a deep MLB roster

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Moustakas’ return may test Counsell’s ability to keep some players happy, productive.

MLB: NLCS-Milwaukee Brewers at Los Angeles Dodgers Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

Ask any coach or manager and they will tell you that having more talent is never a bad thing. A team’s leader will believe he can make it work. Some succeed; many fail. There’s plenty of evidence that shows the defending NL Central champs have the right person at the helm for such a good problem to have.

The re-signing of Mike Moustakas is a clear indication the Milwaukee Brewers believe manager Craig Counsell has the mental strength and soft skills to flawlessly handle the club’s MLB depth. There are a handful of challenges that come into play when you have “too many” proven players to plug in every day, man their “regular” position, or find enough at-bats.

Milwaukee could have stuck with a plan to use Hernan Perez and Cory Spangenberg at second base to start the season. Then maybe call up top prospect Keston Hiura when they thought he was ready. If he wasn’t, maybe they swing a deadline deal for a bat. In the end, they saw an opportunity for a fair deal on Moustakas, and decided that he was best for the team right now.

In a world where advanced statistics are widely used and most teams have the same analysis at their fingertips, it seems human management is the most important skill in an MLB manager’s repertoire (and, of course, bullpen use). If the human element is the deciding factor in managerial success, the Brewers continue to show they feel great about their guy.

Counsell proved for much of 2018 that he had a plan for his full roster, even when new faces showed up mid-season and forced him to make some major adjustments. No matter how one viewed Counsell’s use of certain players, positional changes, or pitching strategies, you can’t argue with the outcome: 96 wins, division champs, and a win shy of the World Series.

But 2019 is a brand new beast, as Counsell has addressed this spring. The addition of Moustakas is a positive on the surface, adding to the already-robust lineup that included five All-Stars with new starting catcher Yasmani Grandal in tow.

With the return of Moose (a two-time All-Star himself), it could mean Travis Shaw losing playing time like he did in the playoffs, or it could force him back to second base if the team doesn’t like how Moustakas looks at the pivot while in Arizona. It also creates more question marks for guys like Eric Thames, newcomer Cory Spangenberg, Hernan Perez, and even Jesus Aguilar – all depending on how the season progresses.

All of those impacted when it comes to playing time, a major league spot, or positional flexibility, could feel a bit sore about their situation. Craig Counsell will need to monitor and navigate those feelings over 162 games. Counsell can draw from his 16 MLB seasons where he played all over the infield, mostly in the utility role.

The skipper also has credibility as a two-time World Series champ. That can go a long way in convincing 30+ pro athletes to adjust roles and change their thinking for the good of winning games, division, and the Series. It’s a challenge that David Stearns and Mark Attanasio believe Counsell is perfect for – and he understands everything that goes into it.

MLB: NLDS-Colorado Rockies at Milwaukee Brewers
Stearns and Counsell are counting on the Brewers’ flooded roster to be more pro than con.
Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

First of all, guys want to play as often as possible. Whether you’re in Little League or the big leagues, the goal isn’t to sit on the bench – it’s not nearly as fun. Many of these players are accustomed to playing 6 straight games or 9 out of 10. That routine often keeps them in a groove and playing better than when they see sporadic time. Some players can’t handle the part-time gig throughout a season. Domingo Santana and Jonathan Schoop were good examples of that last year.

The lack of expected playing time can cause egos to flare up, create animosity between players and the manager, and even develop into a season-long feeling of distrust. All of these things can have a major impact on individual and team performance, as well as chemistry. And yes, chemistry does exist to some extent in any team sports – especially one where you spend so much time together. I’ve been a part of teams that had plenty of talent, but cohesion problems.

Many players not only want to be on the field, they want to be put in a spot they feel comfortable and in the best place to succeed. Players seem to have mostly embraced extreme defensive shifting by now, but putting guys in multiple positions or moving them to an altogether new position can generate hostility toward the manager or the organization.

If a player struggles to learn a new position or successfully make the transition to a “utility” role, it may also impact his offense. Especially for guys in arbitration or with contracts soon expiring, they could view the team as “messing with their earning potential.” If you couple that with less playing time, certain milestones and numbers used to negotiate salaries are affected even further.

As we’ve seen with free agency the past two offseasons, player value and their subsequent salaries are a major consideration right now. Hence, it can be an extremely difficult sell to convince players to willingly accept such changes. As much as we all believe in statistics, a player’s mental state can definitely affect his performance.

Sure, most players will say that winning is the ultimate goal and that the team comes first. I believe them (at least a majority of the time), but athletes want to feel like they’re contributing on the field. They want to be out there fighting with their mates, competing with the best, and proving they deserve that spot on the diamond (and a bigger salary)…all while leading the club to a championship.

Therein lies one of the positives of this double-edged sword called depth: competition. As much as athletes thrive on the battles on the field, there can be a benefit to players needing to fight for playing time. A perceived threat can bring out the best in people and dissuade complacency from setting in. Win that job every day!

Still, this can also be a challenge for the manager as he has to find a way to ensure it doesn’t turn into a net negative, producing more selfishness and rifts between players. Again, back to the chemistry, it certainly looked like part of the 2018 success was the cohesiveness the Brewers had throughout the marathon of a season. A large part of that should be a credit to Counsell and understanding how to talk with players and have everyone going the same direction.

Only time will tell. We will have our questions about Counsell’s moves from now through (hopefully) October – it’s part of the game. Many will wonder if the Moose-Shaw big lineup is better in the long run, and if any of the regulars will be negatively impacted by additional days off, movement around the diamond, or the possible tension in the air – if there is any at all.

One this is certain: the Brewers’ organization is 100% behind Craig Counsell and his ability to be the ideal maestro for a team with high expectations - and perhaps more MLB talent than the fan base has been accustomed to in Milwaukee.