Craig Counsell’s free agency tour ended in the most devastating manner possible for Brewers fans and personnel. Counsell made a stunning switch across the state border and will now manage the Chicago Cubs.
Counsell was heralded in Milwaukee as one of baseball’s top managers, if not the best. His foray into the open market indicated that others across the sport feel the same.
Numerous organizations courted Counsell before he settled on a $40-million deal offered by a team with an incumbent manager. The impact of a manager on a team’s record is difficult to quantify, but multiple front offices find Counsell to be an impactful piece.
The Brewers lost arguably the best manager in baseball. Who bears the most responsibility for Counsell’s departure was among the first questions from fans and analysts.
In the immediate aftermath, the fanbase’s ire appears split between Counsell and owner Mark Attanasio. Those in the former camp believe that Counsell, a franchise icon with lifelong ties to the Brewers as a fan, player, executive, and coach, stabbed Milwaukee in the back. Those in the latter believe that Attanasio drove Counsell to leave with an unwillingness to offer him a market-value contract.
Attanasio was the first to comment publicly. In a video call with local media and a live interview with 620 WTMJ, the Brewers’ principal owner came across as bitter and, at times, unprepared.
There was no carefully crafted statement thanking Counsell for his contributions to the organization and expressing respect for his decision. Instead, Attanasio voiced surprise at Counsell’s decision and tried to rally the troops with messaging that fell flat and sounded tone-deaf.
“Craig has lost us, and he’s lost our community,” he said in his opening statement, as relayed by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Some misconstrued that line as a shot at Counsell. In its full context, it was intended to be forward-looking and complimentary of the fans and remaining personnel in Milwaukee. Still, leading with “his loss” rhetoric in response to such a dark and dramatic moment in franchise history is an unprofessional look and does nothing to help the situation.
Attanasio also did himself no favors when asked whether the Brewers were willing to match the Cubs’ record-setting offer. He referenced Counsell’s reported goal of resetting the market for manager salaries and raised the possibility that his deal with the Cubs could be a “one-off.” Such a comment carries a bitter connotation, and it is easy for some to read it as Attanasio insinuating that the Brewers had no intention of matching Chicago’s offer.
Given Counsell’s value to the organization, his status as a franchise icon, and the fact that managers don’t carry the health and performance risks associated with player signings, there is a very compelling case to be made that the club should have paid more to retain him, especially since Counsell’s annual price tag remained below $10 million.
Their only publicly reported offer of $5.5 million annually fell far short of that. If the Brewers were unwilling to go higher, they deserve criticism and allegations of cheapness.
To his credit, Attanasio said that he did not consider Counsell’s decision a betrayal and credited him with playing a role in the team’s recent success. However, the overarching theme conveyed in his remarks—Counsell is the one who lost the Brewers, and the team doesn’t need him to succeed—was inappropriate for the situation.
It was the latest public relations blunder by an organization that has repeatedly shot itself in the foot in that field throughout the last two seasons. The fallout of the Josh Hader trade and Corbin Burnes’ arbitration case are recent examples in which the Brewers botched communication with players and were not prepared with messaging to ease fan concerns.
The result has been an increasingly bad rap surrounding Attanasio, whom some fans view as a callous cheapskate. While that’s not an entirely fair characterization, Attanasio and the Brewers have done no favors to his or the organization’s public image. They’ve painted themselves in a light that has left some fans unwilling to give them the benefit of the doubt.
It’s especially unfortunate because Attanasio may not be most responsible for Counsell’s departure.
When asked again, this time by WTMJ, if the Brewers had an opportunity to match the Cubs’ offer, Attanasio said that “there was not an opportunity for a last look.”
Such a statement implies that Counsell did not give the Brewers a chance to counter. It aligns with a report that the sides were not in direct contact over the weekend before Counsell signed his new deal by Sunday morning.
Counsell’s failure to give the Brewers that opportunity would be notable given a previous report that he would remain in Milwaukee if they matched the best offer on the open market.
Milwaukee’s $5.5 million offer was never enough to keep Counsell, something both camps should have known. However, it would have made Counsell the highest-paid active manager in the sport. That would be a reasonable starting point if the expectation were that negotiations would continue, and the proposed salary would increase in future offers.
The Brewers appeared to operate as if they expected Counsell to inform them when he received other offers. They permitted the New York Mets and Cleveland Guardians to interview him before his contract expired at the end of October.
They reacted as if Counsell violated such an expectation. In addition to Attanasio’s comments, General Manager Matt Arnold said he was “very shocked” by Counsell’s announcement, adding that the Brewers were “super supportive” of his opportunity to explore other options on the open market.
We may never know the full story of how negotiations unfolded. However, what is known now lends credence to the theory that after a secretive meeting with Cubs President of Baseball Operations Jed Hoyer, Counsell left the Brewers in the dark as he signed with Chicago. A report by Tom Verducci that Counsell viewed managing the Cubs as a “dream job” adds more fuel to that fire.
Additional information may disprove this. At this moment, however, Counsell looks more like the villain than anyone on the Brewers’ side.
The problem is not his destination. It’s how he got there.
Counsell has defensible reasons for joining the Cubs. They gave him the payday he earned with his work in Milwaukee without requiring him to uproot his family from Whitefish Bay. Counsell made clear the responsibility he felt to the Brewers organization as manager, but he never promised to stay forever if a better opportunity presented itself.
Counsell did not owe it to the Brewers to stay on a hometown discount, but he did owe them a last call after receiving his offer from the Cubs, especially if they treated his desire to explore free agency with respect and good faith.
Counsell comes across as the villain if he violated that good faith. If he did not give the Brewers a chance at a counteroffer when they were led to believe he would, his jarring departure is a betrayal of faith and his fault.