Craig Counsell offered a series of measured responses during his introductory press conference at Wrigley Field on Monday, repeatedly stating his desire to take things slow and get them right. Part of that was simply making sure he didn’t get carried away by the whirlwind courtship that saw him pretty much teleport from Milwaukee to Chicago, but the manager spoke often about the importance of relationships and establishing a firm emotional foundation with his coaching staff and players.
He declined to provide any specifics about how that staff will shake out, who’s staying from the previous regime(s) and who’s joining him from the Brewers. Though Counsell said he hasn’t done his homework on that yet and wants to be deliberate, all of which is certainly true, the more obvious reason for his lack of details is that he may not yet know which of his Milwaukee coaches are going to be available.
Reports surfaced Monday evening that the Brewers had settled on Pat Murphy, Counsell’s longtime bench coach, as their new skipper. A 20-plus-year veteran of the college ranks, Murphy coached Counsell at Notre Dame and also spent time at Arizona State before joining the Padres organization. He managed several of their minor league affiliates, including the Eugene Emeralds over five seasons and was eventually named San Diego’s interim manager in June of 2015 after Bud Black was fired.
The Brewers had actually requested to talk with Murphy about joining Counsell prior to that season, but the Padres refused to allow it. Things worked out in the end, as former coach and player were reunited ahead of the 2016 campaign. It’s interesting that Milwaukee is opting for the 65-year-old Murphy, who’s a bit more old-school than Counsell, to run a team that appears to be headed for at least a light rebuild.
Rather than go any further down that path, let’s turn to what it means for the Cubs moving forward. It’s reasonable to expect that Murphy will be able to retain some other members of Counsell’s staff, as several of them have already signed contracts for the 2024 season. There are ways around that, of course, but it’s worth noting. The Brewers have hired former player Rickie Weeks as Murphy’s bench coach, setting up what appears to be a manager-in-waiting situation.
The Cubs likewise have several coaches under contract for next season, the most notable of which are pitching coach Tommy Hottovy and hitting coach Dustin Kelly. Both are highly regarded throughout the industry and the team surely wants to keep them around. Hottovy, you may recall, has been with the Cubs in various capacities since a month after Joe Maddon was hired, and Kelly was elevated from the minors last year. All of which is to say this probably isn’t a situation in which their loyalty to a former boss would have them looking elsewhere.
Then there’s John Mallee, the team’s former hitting coach who was reportedly going to be joining the big league staff a few days before Counsell was hired. No role was specified at the time, though the Cubs were without a strategy coach after parting ways with Craig Driver. Bench coach Andy Green was making the managerial interview rounds as well, so there was a strong presumption that he might be gone as well.
Mallee’s return to Chicago after serving as a minor league hitting instructor felt very much like a front office decision, so it makes sense that he’d still have a spot after the change. Counsell said during his presser that Jed Hoyer was very aggressive during their initial conversation, selling his vision of the Cubs and the potential to create a champion. In addition to discussing the farm system and financial flexibility, the two surely talked about which coaches would be sticking around as part of the deal.
In a sense, it’s like Counsell is purchasing a home with some of the appliances already installed. It’s already clear that he won’t be bringing all of his previous lieutenants with him, which actually fits perfectly with all his talk about needing to seek out new challenges in order to grow. This is a different organization with a different outlook, one that may require a few new sets of eyes from those he was looking through in Milwaukee.
Counsell also talked about how having greater resources in Chicago means dealing with different kinds of players, which can be a challenge for a manager. The Cubs are expected to pursue some big names through both trades and free agency this winter, and having a staff in place will help with some of those negotiations and the acclimation process for both players and manager.
We recently discussed how Mallee, who also spent time as the Phillies’ hitting coach, might be a boon when it comes to landing first baseman Rhys Hoskins. As someone brought up to me the other day, it’s also possible that Mallee’s experience on Joe Maddon‘s staff in Anaheim could have some bearing on another pursuit. After all, Shohei Ohtani set career highs with 46 homers, 103 runs, and 100 RBI during the 2021 season under Mallee’s tutelage.
Then again, Ohtani dropped off a bit the following season and Mallee was let go. I’m not suggesting there’s really much of a draw when it comes to a particular member of the coaching staff, nor am I trying to indicate that Hoyer brought Mallee back to serve as a recruiter, though a little familiarity can’t hurt. Just like Wrigley Field’s configuration and the Cubs’ lighter travel schedule might work in their favor when it comes to a potential pursuit of Ohtani.
These connections or advantages might seem too small in the grand scheme of things to make any real difference, but Counsell spoke with conviction about how stacking little decisions can have a big impact over time. If you just keep stringing together little wins, you eventually look back and are amazed by how far you’ve come.
The Cubs have a lot of those little decisions to make this week, starting with the November 14 deadline on which minor leaguers to protect from the Rule 5 Draft. The non-tender deadline comes three days later and could see the team parting ways with two or three members of the roster. In the meantime, Counsell and the front office will be working on assembling a staff. Hoyer said during the GM Meetings that the trade market really starts to heat up after Thanksgiving, so I’d expect we’ll have more clarity around coaches by the middle of next week.
Update: Per ESPN’s Jesse Rogers, the entire Brewers coaching staff is returning for next season. That means Counsell will indeed be retaining at least a few key members of the Cubs’ staff.