PITTSBURGH -- It was only three weeks ago that Pirates chairman Bob Nutting introduced team president Travis Williams. That day, Williams admitted Monday afternoon, “feels like forever ago.”
But in those three weeks, Nutting and Williams completed their search for Pittsburgh’s next general manager and hired Ben Cherington, who was introduced on Monday at PNC Park. There is still much left for the Pirates’ management trio to decide, however, and even more for them to do.
Here are five of the biggest questions facing Cherington, Williams and Nutting as they begin working together and some of what we learned from speaking to them on Monday at PNC Park.
What’s the plan?
You can’t blame Cherington for not immediately tipping his hand on Day 1.
If he came out and boldly declared the Pirates were going all-in on 2020, he’d set himself up for potential failure. If he hinted they were going to tear down their Major League roster and rebuild through their Minor League system, he’d risk losing negotiating leverage while potentially upsetting fans.
All three men made it clear the entire organization needs an infusion of talent after a 93-loss season and a step back in most farm system rankings. They just didn’t say how that will happen, whether they’re building or rebuilding.
“I don’t think about it in a sort of either-or, black-and-white or binary sense. I think it’s about improving our talent,” Cherington said. “We need to improve our talent base -- Major League level, Minor League level. You do that through acquisition, through various channels -- international, amateur, pro. You do that through improving the players that are already here, helping the players improve that are already here. You do that through creating environments where they’re performing at their best. We’ve got to do that every day.”
How will Cherington and his staff accomplish that? Time will tell. So will his first few transactions.
“There are opportunities that come along during that time that we’ll have to evaluate, and you evaluate them on the merits of, ‘Is this particular opportunity or decision moving us closer to that team that we envisioned or not?’” Cherington said. “We need to be good at those decisions.”
What about payroll?
They were adamant that Cherington’s strengths -- scouting and player development -- should lead to success regardless of the Major League payroll figure. Cherington said he feels confident in “the resources available and investment in the entire baseball infrastructure, including the Major League team.”
But it’s going to be an issue as long as the Pirates remain among the Majors’ lowest spenders, and it came up often on Monday.
Nutting reiterated what he said when Williams was hired: The baseball operations budget is what it is, but Cherington can reallocate resources within that budget however he sees fit.
“I wish that there was more money that could be spent,” Nutting said. “What we absolutely can do is reallocate dollars, and we’ve talked a lot about that. … I absolutely want us to rip a bunch of Band-Aids off, take a fresh look at a lot of areas, re-think how we’re doing it, and that’s going to take some time. You can’t do that in a week.”
Who’s running the show?
Cherington will run the baseball operations department while Williams, whose professional sports experience has been mostly in the National Hockey League, can offer valuable oversight and input or just serve as a sounding board.
“I think what we both respect is he's got a great baseball mind. I bring a different perspective and lens to different discussions and decisions,” Williams said. “I'll let Ben speak for himself, but I think that's in large part he likes that diversity of thought and perspective."
Indeed, that lines up with Cherington’s reputation for considering a wide range of opinions during his decision-making process. But one benefit of hiring an experienced GM like Cherington is that he’s been there and done that. He won’t encounter many situations he hasn’t experienced before, and the Pirates trusted his judgment enough to hire him from a field of 50 candidates.
“For a long time, Ben has been one of the really creative minds in baseball, pushing innovation, pushing the edge of how do you develop, how do you identify, how do you continue to improve talent?” Nutting said. “And frankly, having the résumé helps as well. But the combination of those two was really intriguing to me.”
Who will stay and who will go?
In the coming days, Cherington will evaluate Pittsburgh’s front office on an individual basis. Williams repeatedly referred to him as a “talent magnet,” someone with a knack for attracting gifted executives and letting them flourish, and he’ll get a chance to do that.
So far, the Pirates have only dismissed longtime assistant general manager Kyle Stark and committed to keeping assistant GM Kevan Graves, who interviewed for Cherington’s job.
Graves “will be a key asset to Ben as he moves forward,” Williams said. It’s likely that other holdovers from the Neal Huntington regime will remain in place as well, or that they’ll be reassigned as Cherington fills out his staff.
“I just need to dive into that and learn more about their strengths, their interests, are there things they’d like to be doing more of, less of, where do we need to get better, and are there opportunities to adjust roles where people are deployed differently?” Cherington said. “Everyone ought to get an opportunity to learn and grow and be part of what we’re doing.
“But we also need to get better, so we need to figure out if there is additional kind of expertise or experience that might not currently exist in baseball ops that we need to pursue sooner rather than later.”
What about the manager?
The Pirates’ first search of the offseason was put on hold when Huntington was dismissed, as he had conducted a number of in-person interviews while leading the search for Clint Hurdle’s replacement.
Cherington said hiring a manager will be his “first order of business,” and he intended to get started Monday night. Pirates special assistant Jeff Banister, Twins bench coach Derek Shelton and A’s coach Mark Kotsay were said to leave a strong impression in Huntington’s initial round of interviews, but it’s unclear if that will hold any weight now. Cherington said he hadn’t determined if they will interview additional candidates.
“I do feel like there was a lot of good work done in the first part of the process, a really good foundation of information built on several candidates -- several that I would have wanted to interview, talk to anyway if I had been involved a month ago,” Cherington said. “I think we’re off to a really good start. There’s certainly more work to do. We’ll work as hard as we can and be as efficient and as effective as we can over the next several days to find the right person.”