Analysis | How valuable is an elite manager? The Cubs are about to find out.

Analysis | How valuable is an elite manager? The Cubs are about to find out.

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 0

MESA, Ariz. — The most significant free agent signing of the Chicago Cubs’ offseason addressed his new team before its first workout Monday morning, and Craig Counsell did not make bloated promises.

“Winning teams are fun to be on, and sometimes you don’t always get what you want,” swingman Drew Smyly said. “That was his message today: I’d rather be a guy that helps a winning team than a guy with a distinct role on a bad team. If everyone gets their way, you’re probably not that good of a team.”

That message is fitting for Counsell, whom the Cubs chose to make the highest-paid manager in baseball even though it required them to jettison a franchise icon, former manager David Ross, in the middle of his contract. But according to those who know him well, the five-year, $40 million deal is also fitting for Counsell, who ascended to the tier of baseball’s elite managers with a reputation for expert bullpen management and total comfort with uncomfortable conversations.

“There’s no bulls— with Counsell,” said left-hander Wade Miley, who pitched for Counsell’s Milwaukee Brewers last year. “He’s going to tell you exactly what he feels.”

But exactly how much those traits are worth — particularly to the Cubs, whose other offseason additions were limited to late-inning relievers, a back-end starter and an unproven first baseman with little track record beyond Class AAA — is unclear. That is precisely why the Cubs’ splurge on Counsell was so surprising: The true value of a manager is one of the rare frontiers that baseball’s data has yet to map completely.

“Candidly, it’s hard … for our entire industry to evaluate the value of the manager,” said San Diego Manager Mike Shildt, whose new organization is Exhibit A for how difficult it can be even for some of the sport’s most creative minds to figure out who can best guide a team. Shildt became the fourth manager hired by Padres General Manager A.J. Preller in a decade of trying to make rosters click in San Diego.

“It’s a great question, and I do think about it, but I’ve never answered it, so I have to be mindful about this,” Shildt continued. “Ultimately, I view the manager’s role as first of all to create an atmosphere where people are enjoying themselves.”

That is often easier said than done. Some managers master it better than others.

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“The demeanor of your manager often shows up in the demeanor of your team,” said Rhys Hoskins, the former Philadelphia Phillies first baseman who signed with the Brewers this offseason. “I’ve had some guys who have been in baseball a long time and things were maybe more structured and rigid. To me, that leaked into the team.”

Hoskins saw one of the more memorable in-season turnarounds in recent memory, one spurred — if the timing is any indication, at least — by Philadelphia’s firing of old-school manager Joe Girardi midway through 2022 and elevation of genial bench coach Rob Thomson to interim manager. The Phillies were 22-29 and trying to revive an anxious clubhouse. From that point on, they played 19 games over .500 and made a run to the World Series.

“There’s so much that goes on throughout a season, we often get lost in the day-to-day, but I think having somebody that has more of a 10,000-foot view of what goes on really helps teams get on track,” Hoskins said. “Or as I was able to find out, get us onto the right track.”

That Phillies team was loaded with talent. Perhaps it was only a matter of time before it resuscitated itself, no matter the manager. But Hoskins did not hesitate when asked if he thinks a manager can win games for a team.

“Yeah, I do,” Hoskins said. “Maybe some of it’s more quantifiable, but oftentimes the stuff that means the most you can’t always quantify.”

Just about the only thing teams agree on when it comes to valuing managers is that their value is impossible to measure accurately. But say, hypothetically, a manager could add three to four wins to a team’s record over the course of the season with smart lineup moves, wise pitching decisions and strong morale management. The Cubs, who fell a few wins short of the postseason in 2023, seem unlikely to have displaced a franchise icon for a lesser upgrade than that.

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Then compare what they will pay Counsell annually with what a player worth three to four Wins Above Replacement demands once he hits free agency: In 2023, players who were worth three to four WAR (per FanGraphs) included Trea Turner (who signed with Philadelphia for 11 years and $300 million ahead of last season) and Manny Machado (who joined San Diego for 10 years and $300 million in 2019). By that admittedly inexact comparison, Counsell at $8 million per season would be a more efficient use of funds.

“Craig is considered one of the best managers in baseball,” Cubs owner Tom Ricketts said Monday. “You’re always trying to look to get better at every position, including manager, so when [team president Jed Hoyer] approached me, I was very much in favor.”

The Cubs’ front office, led by Hoyer and General Manager Carter Hawkins, has developed a reputation for hunting deals as much as top talent. As the second week of spring training begins, they have not made a free agent splash outside of adding Counsell and Japanese lefty Shota Imanaga, but they seem comfortable waiting to see if the prices drop on top free agents such as Cody Bellinger and Matt Chapman.

But in that context, the addition of Counsell — stunning at the time — makes sense in hindsight: He always seemed to squeeze more out of less in Milwaukee as his Brewers finished ahead of the Cubs in the National League Central in five of the past six seasons. Even at a record rate for a manager, the Cubs seem to be betting his value will outpace his price.

“Jed definitely sees you can only spend every dollar once,” Ricketts said. He and the Cubs are hoping the dollars they spent on Counsell make all the difference.

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