PITTSBURGH -- Ben Cherington sat between Pirates chairman Bob Nutting and team president Travis Williams on Monday afternoon, first in PNC Park’s press conference room, then later in a suite with the downtown skyline visible through the window behind him. On his first day as the Pirates’ general manager, Cherington put on Pittsburgh’s colors -- a gold tie with black stripes -- and put forth his vision for small-market success.
Cherington believes his strengths in scouting and player development mesh well with the Pirates’ current needs, which is why the Pirates believe they’ve found the right man to get their baseball operations department back on track.
“He knows how to develop young players, how to identify talent, fill our organization with our talented players and focus on players,” Nutting said on Monday while introducing Cherington at PNC Park. “I am confident and excited that he will bring that approach and build a great baseball operations department and system and team here in Pittsburgh. I couldn’t be more pleased to have him here.”
It’s not hard to figure out why the Pirates were interested in Cherington, who spent the past three years as the Blue Jays’ vice president of baseball operations. Their search to replace former GM Neal Huntington, assisted by the consulting firm Korn Ferry, began with them vetting 50 candidates, narrowing that down to a field of 12 and interviewing a handful of those dozen people. They selected Cherington, and he accepted the job on Friday.
Williams said the Pirates’ choice was based on three factors: Cherington’s track record, his ability to build a strong front office (Williams called him a “talent magnet”) and his passion for scouting and player development.
The 45-year-old is highly regarded within the industry for his quiet leadership, his wealth of experience and his scouting acumen. His 17-year tenure in the Red Sox's front office included three World Series victories, one of which he oversaw during his four-year run as general manager, and he built the core of Boston’s 2018 championship team as well.
“Ben is exactly what we need in this organization at this point in time,” Williams said.
The Pirates are coming off a 69-win season, their farm system has fallen back toward the middle of the pack and their payroll consistently ranks among the lowest in the Majors. Once analytically ahead of the curve, they fell behind after reaching the postseason from 2013-15. They didn’t develop enough impact talent on their own, and over the last few years, they’ve seen players like Gerrit Cole and Tyler Glasnow take off only after leaving Pittsburgh.
They believe Cherington, with his extensive background in scouting and player development, can help fix that and make the Pirates competitive again.
“We needed to find a great baseball mind to crack the code in order to be successful in a market like Pittsburgh within the economics of baseball. Others are doing it. We will do it,” Williams said. “I can assure all of you, and especially our fans, we have found the right person in Ben Cherington.”
But why was Cherington interested in the Pirates?
He has reportedly turned down similar opportunities in recent years, and in a statement announcing his hiring, Cherington called his new job “the ideal opportunity for me, and the only one I was interested in exploring.”
While meeting the media, Cherington said his interest in the Pirates came into focus after meeting with Nutting and Williams. They shared a passion for player development.
“I would not have taken this job if I didn't feel strongly about those relationships,” Cherington said. “I also feel strongly about the level of commitment that's in place here to the entire baseball operations structure, including the team, and that that level of commitment and investment is what we need to build a winning team.
“And then, on a more personal level, I feel like the things that I've actually spent my career focused on are the things that drive success in a place like this.”
“A place like this” is, of course, a much smaller market than Cherington’s previous stops. He won’t have the financial backing that he did when running the Red Sox. Boston’s payroll flexibility provided greater margin for error, Cherington admitted, but he and Williams frequently cited what they believe will be the four keys to Pittsburgh’s future success: identifying, acquiring, developing and deploying talent.
“When you’re doing those things really well, that’s going to drive winning. It really drives it, no matter what the payroll size,” Cherington said. “If you peel back in Boston what really drove winning, I think, in most of the best years, was really good work in scouting and development. That’s what we’ll need to do here.”
Plenty of questions must be answered soon. Can the Pirates truly compete without a significantly higher payroll? How long will that take, and will it require a rebuilding process? How will Cherington reshape the front office? Who will he hire to be Pittsburgh’s manager?
There weren’t many answers on Monday afternoon, but there was plenty of optimism coming from the press conference room and the suite level at PNC Park.
“I think if someone asked three weeks ago or three months ago, ‘Can you put together a team that has a deep history of success and connection to Pittsburgh with Travis, deep history and success and relentless passion for getting better every day like Ben?’” Nutting said. “I don't think anybody would have bet, 'Oh, yeah, that's the team you're going to be able to get recruited to Pittsburgh.'
“I think we have a team that is going to make us better every single day. That's what's important to me right now.”