TORONTO -- Along with the openings in their starting rotation, the Blue Jays are also working to fill two empty chairs in their front office after Ben Cherington and Steve Sanders left the organization recently to join the Pirates.
Cherington, who was announced as the Pirates’ new general manager last week, vacated the role of vice president of baseball operations with the Blue Jays, a wide-ranging position with a focus on player development. Sanders, formerly the Blue Jays’ director of amateur scouting, joined Cherington in Pittsburgh as his assistant general manager. The two had worked together in Boston before joining Toronto.
The loss of Cherington and Sanders hit the Blue Jays hard, but general manager Ross Atkins takes the exodus as a compliment. Organizations tend tend to lose front-office personnel to bigger opportunities when they’re doing something right.
“It’s our opinion that the reason they were targeted is because of their focus on people, their focus on process and their passion for not only what they can do but what they’ve done,” Atkins said. “What they’ve done here is put in place a lot of things that are going to be lasting. The people they’ve influenced, the systems that they’ve influenced, the concepts and programs they’ve designed, the people they’ve hired.”
The Blue Jays could have some wiggle room when it comes to replacing Cherington. Whereas Sanders held a more traditional position with clear responsibilities leading the Draft, Cherington’s role could be catered to the expertise of a potential new candidate. The presence of Tony Lacava, the Blue Jays' senior vice president of player personnel, is extremely valuable as a stabilizer, Atkins believes, but filling these positions is a priority.
“We’ll be more flexible on the ultimate role in replacing Ben, and it’s pretty defined what we’ll be looking for to replace Steve Sanders,” Atkins said. “We’ll consider internal options, which we have very good ones, and we’ll make sure that we’re considering every opportunity externally, as well.”
While Cherington came to the Blue Jays with previous experience at the helm of the Red Sox, Sanders is just 31 years old and considered by many to be a rising star in baseball circles. As Atkins knows well himself, Sanders’ success in Toronto earned him this bigger role.
With Sanders leading the past three MLB Drafts, the Blue Jays have done well to replenish a farm system that lost many ranked prospects in 2015 and '16, as the Blue Jays geared up for their playoff runs.
In preparing for the 2017 Draft, the Blue Jays were particularly high on Central Florida Community College right-hander Nate Pearson, who shot up Draft boards late in the process because of his tremendous combination of size and velocity. Just two and a half years later, not only is Pearson the Blue Jays' No. 1 prospect, he’s considered by MLB Pipeline to be the No. 2 right-handed pitching prospect in Major League Baseball.
Sanders was also at the helm when the Blue Jays selected infielder Jordan Groshans, the club’s No. 2 prospect, 12th overall in 2018. Some clubs had Groshans ranked lower, but the Blue Jays had him ranked even higher than 12 on their board, and the 20-year-old is already looking like strong value for the slot. Drafts take years and years to properly judge, but the early reviews on Sanders’ Drafts over the past three seasons have been largely positive.
Somewhere in Major League Baseball, there is another Steve Sanders, and the Blue Jays are now tasked with finding them. This should be an attractive position, too, as the organization is committed to building a sustainable pipeline, and it holds the fifth overall pick in the 2020 Draft.
“Every pick is important. And when you have the fifth pick, it’s more important,” Atkins said. “But we are extremely confident in not just the leadership of Tony [LaCava] but the involvement of [director of baseball operations] Joe Sheehan, the involvement of Mike Murov and having a very strong department that is cohesive.