PITTSBURGH -- The Pirates on Monday named their new general manager, a man who shares the organization’s desire to build a legitimate and sustainable contender from within through scouting and player development.
Ben Cherington, a World Series-winning GM with the Red Sox and the former Blue Jays vice president of baseball operations, takes the job as the new leader of the Pirates’ baseball operations department after accepting Pittsburgh’s offer on Friday. The club held a news conference Monday at PNC Park to introduce the new GM.
“This is an important step forward for our organization,” Pirates chairman of the board Bob Nutting said in a release making the announcement. “Ben has an incredible track record of success having been a part of three world championship teams in Boston, one as general manager, and setting the table for a fourth. His passion and ability to identify, infuse and develop talent at every level, including at the Major League level, is exactly what we need to be successful in Pittsburgh.”
Cherington, 45, was an extraordinarily qualified candidate with more than two decades of experience at nearly every level of a baseball operations department. He was the Pirates’ pick from a field of finalists that also included interim GM Kevan Graves, Brewers assistant GM Matt Arnold and Astros director of player development Pete Putila.
“Pittsburgh is the ideal opportunity for me, and the only one I was interested in exploring,” Cherington said. “The four pillars that will drive our success are elite talent identification, acquisition, development and deployment. My entire career has been spent focusing on developing great systems to be elite in these four critical areas, which will fuel our future success in Pittsburgh.
“I have always appreciated the passion of Pittsburgh sports fans. My sense is that Pirates fans appreciate hard work, honest effort, and people and players they can trust. All things that I can respect and identify with. My wife and I couldn’t be more excited to be a part of this community.”
Cherington began his career in 1998 as a video advance scout with the Indians after an interview arranged by former Pirates GM Neal Huntington, a fellow New Hampshire native and graduate of Amherst College. But most of Cherington’s experience came with the Red Sox from 1999-2015.
He worked his way up the ladder as a domestic amateur scout, an international scout, as farm director, as a vice president with oversight of the Draft and Minor League system, and as an assistant GM to Theo Epstein with more responsibility for the Major League club. In November 2011, Cherington officially succeeded Epstein as Boston’s general manager.
The Red Sox went 69-93 in Cherington’s first season at the helm, but Cherington created significant financial flexibility in August 2012 by making a blockbuster trade with the Dodgers that allowed him to reshape Boston’s 2013 roster.
Cherington hired manager John Farrell and made seven shrewd free-agent signings that winter, and the veteran-laden Red Sox won 97 games and, ultimately, the 2013 World Series. For his work, Cherington was recognized as Sporting News’ Executive of the Year; Huntington finished second that year after leading the Pirates back to the postseason for the first time in 20 years.
The rest of Cherington’s tenure in Boston was marked by disappointment at the Major League level and tremendous progress in the Minors. The Red Sox finished in last place in 2014 and ’15, but they acquired, developed and built the core of their 2018 World Series championship team -- players like Mookie Betts, Andrew Benintendi, Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr., Rafael Devers and Eduardo Rodriguez. That club also benefitted from Dave Dombrowski’s decision to deal prospects, most of whom were acquired under Cherington, for difference-making veterans like Chris Sale and Craig Kimbrel.
But Boston demanded instant and consistent success at Fenway Park, so the Red Sox hired Dombroski to run their baseball operations department on Aug. 18, 2015, and Cherington resigned the same day. Cherington reportedly had informal conversations about joining the Pirates’ front office that winter but instead took a job with Columbia University’s Sports Management faculty and taught a class on leadership in the spring of 2016.
Cherington joined the Blue Jays in September 2016 in a versatile, behind-the-scenes role that focused primarily on Toronto’s Minor League system during the season. According to MLB Network insider Ken Rosenthal, Cherington turned down multiple GM-level job interviews in recent years because he wanted to find an opportunity that allowed him to build a club from the “ground up.”
Cherington should have that opportunity in Pittsburgh. Team president Travis Williams isn’t expected to be involved in day-to-day baseball decisions but instead to provide bigger-picture oversight, giving Cherington latitude to shape the organization as he sees fit.
The Pirates are coming off a 69-win season that led chairman Bob Nutting to completely overhaul the club’s leadership structure. Out went former manager Clint Hurdle and president Frank Coonelly. Then came the dismissal of Huntington on Oct. 28 and Friday’s announcement that assistant GM Kyle Stark, Huntington’s right-hand man since November 2007, had also been relieved of his duties.
When discussing the decision to move on from Huntington, Nutting acknowledged that the organization needed more talent at every level to succeed on a consistent basis. It sounded almost like Epstein and Cherington’s goal of turning the Red Sox into what Epstein called a “scouting and player-development machine.”
“I do think we need to have every option on the table. There’s no question we need to have more talent throughout the organization,” Nutting said on Oct. 28. “We have talked about infusing more talent in the organization. We need to live it and breathe it.”
During his time in Boston, Cherington was lauded for his leadership, thoughtful decision-making and talent evaluation. In the book “Homegrown,” author Alex Speier wrote that during Cherington’s tenure as farm director, “The Sox became an organization that rarely gave up on players only to see them flourish in new organizations.” That seems particularly ideal for a Pirates organization that saw Gerrit Cole, Tyler Glasnow, Austin Meadows and others take off away from Pittsburgh in recent years.
“We will continue to focus on drafting, development, building talent and seeing elite talent inside the organization. That’s not going to change, but we need to do it better,” Nutting said two weeks ago. “We’re tired of seeing players who we’ve brought in perform at a high level somewhere else. We need to have the highest level of performance here at PNC Park from those players we’re bringing in and identifying.”
Cherington will face new challenges in Pittsburgh, where he’s working with a club that’s struggled through three losing seasons in the past four years, a small-market budget and a middle-of-the-pack farm system. In Boston, Cherington never operated with a Major League payroll lower than $143 million, while Pittsburgh has never run up a payroll higher than roughly $101 million in 2016.
With the annual Winter Meetings set to begin three weeks after Cherington’s introduction, the Pirates must swiftly reconstruct their front office, finish the managerial search that Huntington started, assemble a coaching staff and decide how to move forward with their roster.
In Cherington, they believe they found the right man to lead the way.