Now we know that the Mets can, and probably will, interview Craig Counsell.
You know what we still don’t know?
Does Counsell actually want to manage the Mets?
And not to be downplayed — does David Stearns want to reunite with Counsell to have him manage the Mets?
The Mets were granted permission by the Brewers to interview Counsell. But that was just last-second semantics, to some degree. His Milwaukee contract expires Tuesday, and Stearns has not emphasized fast-tracking managerial interviews since he officially joined the Mets on Oct. 2.
Counsell also has not made public his desires. But he has the rare commodity for a manager these days, especially if he wants to stay in Milwaukee — leverage.
It is not just that Counsell has been successful in his eight-plus years as Brewers manager. He has great popularity in MLB’s smallest market. Counsell grew up and still resides in Whitefish Bay, Wis. His dad worked for the organization. The Brewers had only ever reached the playoffs four times before making it five times in the last six seasons under a local boy who has made good.
Also, it should be remembered that in his playing days, Counsell was a very active member of the MLB Players Association. He was considered smart and thoughtful by the union leadership while he was a member of the negotiating committee during collective bargaining with MLB. Counsell was an advocate for players being paid their worth.
Why would that change in his current realm? Counsell is still in prime managing years at 53. He has the reputation as being among the game’s best — the Brewers, for example, have outperformed the Pythagorean winning percentage based on runs scored and allowed in each of the last seven seasons.
Counsell is basically at the peak of his profession. He made $3.5 million in 2023. The top of the manager market comes in at $6 million-plus. That is not the kind of salary that the Brewers would traditionally pay. But what about for a successful local hero? What about for a successful local hero at a time when the franchise is trying to finalize plans for the local government to invest more than $500 million in stadium improvements for American Family Field? Do the Brewers really want to risk unfavorable local sentiment if Counsell leaves over money?
Also on the Counsell leverage side is the potential that an opposing bidder might be Steve Cohen, who has shown a willingness to pay what is necessary for what he wants. Let’s just say the Brewers were not thrilled with the perception that the Mets waited until Stearns’ Brewers contract expired to poach him with one of the largest contracts ever given a head of baseball operations.
So does Counsell really want to come to the Mets? Or does he want the Brewers to believe he will come to the Mets? Or is he simply now a free agent willing to listen to pitches in places with interest — Dusty Baker just retired and so suddenly the Astros job is open as well.
“I think only Craig knows that,” someone who has worked with Counsell said, noting his ability to keep personal thoughts largely unknown. In September, when I asked Counsell about his looming free agency, he insisted how the season went (the Brewers were ultimately swept in the Division Series) plus more time was needed to make a judgment that he insisted had not yet been reached.
Stearns also does not seem to have reached a determination. He took over nearly four weeks ago and promised a wide-ranging process to replace Buck Showalter — and it was believed that he had not yet begun a formal interview process. Stearns believes the right pathway is to do a lot of due diligence by talking to as many people as possible before initiating formal interviews. “He’s doing a ton of reference checking,” a top baseball executive said.
Those who know Stearns believe he is not beholden to the traditional baseball clock. Historically, teams want to conclude business like hiring a manager as quickly as possible. In part, for a team that didn’t make the playoffs such as the Mets, it is to avoid competing against every club that might ultimately have an opening.
This offseason the Padres job opened late with San Diego allowing its manager, Bob Melvin, to go to San Francisco. The Houston job is now open along with unfilled spots with the Angels and Guardians. But the competition is not speeding up Stearns, whose philosophy appears to be gathering as much intelligence as possible on potential candidates and then asking for permission on multiple candidates near simultaneously.
He likely will interview several candidates before narrowing a list, then making a choice — leaning on these face-to-face talks because he thinks the connection between his role and the manager is so vital. He has a history in that connection with Counsell, serving as Counsell’s boss from October 2015 through the end of the 2022 season. Does Stearns value that? Or does he want to hire, say, a first-timer and grow with the person? Cohen has vested Stearns with the power to choose.
So does he really want Counsell?
And does Counsell really want the Mets?