TORONTO – Information and those most adept at applying it are the hottest commodities in baseball these days, which is why one industry cynic quipped recently that front offices compete harder for talented executives than they do for all-star players.
Hyperbole, to be sure, though it does highlight the game’s current race for knowledge, and the repercussions every team faces when another club raids its staff directory.
The Toronto Blue Jays were struck in such fashion when the Pittsburgh Pirates hired Ben Cherington away from his role as vice-president, baseball operations to be their new general manager, introducing him Monday.
Cherington, who spent three years with the club after parting with the Boston Red Sox, is the first influential executive hired under the regime of president and CEO Mark Shapiro to leave for another position. Whether he may take others with him is uncertain, although the understanding is he would only ask for someone to offer a significant promotion, not for a relatively lateral move.
The Blue Jays prepared for Cherington’s departure and had a succession plan in place for the short term, according to general manager Ross Atkins, and have already started thinking about ways to backfill the position.
“Ben is unique,” Atkins said in a brief interview. “We’re going to look to hire for his role but it will be difficult to replace his level of leadership and experience.”
Turnabout is fair play, though, as the Blue Jays have certainly taken from others in recent years.
Atkins and former COO Andrew Miller, who left this summer to join the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings, came over from Cleveland soon after Shapiro arrived from the Indians. Farm director Gil Kim left the Texas Rangers while amateur scouting director Steve Sanders and baseball operations director Mike Murov were lured from the Boston Red Sox.
Cherington worked closely with all three and each could be a potential target for the Pirates.
Teams, of course, are wary not only of the loss in human resources, but of the intellectual property that can also find its way out the door. During his introductory news conference in Pittsburgh, Cherington emphasized the importance of player development, saying it’s “an area that has completely changed in the last 5-7 years.”
“I mean, the world is upside down in terms of player development,” he continued. “So there’s a lot of opportunity out there and I’ve just had the good fortune to be in a position to focus on a lot of that change in the last three years. So I’m really looking forward to diving in with our group here to see where those opportunities are, both at the major-league level and at the minor-league level.”
Much of what he picked up with the Blue Jays is sure be a part of that.
Cherington is the second executive promoted to run another team from an American League East club this off-season, joining Chaim Bloom, who left the Tampa Bay Rays to become chief baseball officer for the Red Sox.
The Rays, relatively stable since Andrew Friedman’s Oct. 2014 departure for the Los Angeles Dodgers, have been picked over of late, also losing coaches Rocco Baldelli (the 2019 AL Manager of the Year) and Charlie Montoyo to managing gigs last winter.
Bloom, their No. 2 under GM Erik Neander, is a more cutting loss, especially for an organization reliant on out-managing its rivals. Given how cleverly they operate and the consistency with which the team has outperformed its payroll, it’s somewhat surprising they haven’t lost people more often.
“In years where you’re fortunate to win some games you tend to be a more popular organization,” Neander said in an interview last week. “I don’t know if we’re any different now than we were in 2017 or 2015, but perceptions are pretty well aligned with how many games you win in the big-leagues and that extends throughout your entire staff. At the end of the day, there’s not a whole lot you can do (to keep employees from leaving) other than to try to provide people all they want in a job.
“If you can do that effectively, they then want to be there and they’re not looking for other opportunities.”
Sometimes, though, opportunities are presented, rather than sought, and that’s when front offices must strike a delicate balance. A rule of thumb is that career progressions should not be prevented, but teams are also competing against one another and there can be situations when the loss of an executive is especially damaging.
Atkins said requests from other clubs are treated with “complete transparency,” and that the Blue Jays try to work with employees when promotions or lateral moves are offered. The later into an off-season an offer is made, the more complicated a move becomes given the operational needs at the time.
In Cherington’s case, he didn’t join the other Blue Jays executives in Scottsdale while the Pirates made their decision. Three possibilities they’re kicking around now is seeking another former GM type to work in a similar vein to Cherington, seeking out an entirely different skillset for the organization or elevating the responsibilities for a handful internal people already in-house.
Neander said when it comes to the Rays, “very, very generally speaking, I don’t think you ever want to prevent someone from an opportunity of advancement in their career. In general, you would love for that opportunity to come with us.”
“In a situation like Chaim moving to Boston,” he continued, “there’s a silver lining to that in that it allows some people that are deserving of a greater opportunity and greater exposure, responsibility to have that. Generally, you want to be supportive of people having the opportunity to grow their careers in ways that they prefer. I suppose there are some boundaries on that, but by and large, we want to do what’s best for our staff members, their families and the people that support them.”
The Rays did that for Bloom and the Blue Jays did that for Cherington, whose loss will be felt, particularly on the player-development side. His experience and background won’t be easily replaced, but as the competition for top executives continues to increase, such departures are simply a fact of life.