With critical draft ahead, Blue Jays motivated to make new hire soon

Ross Atkins, general manager of the Toronto Blue Jays, speaks to the media. (Nathan Denette/CP)

TORONTO ­– Viewed from the Toronto Blue Jays’ perspective, the departures of Ben Cherington and Steve Sanders are perhaps best described as bittersweet.

On the one hand, it’s encouraging that the Pittsburgh Pirates would choose Cherington, a former Blue Jays VP, to run their baseball operations department, and that Cherington would want Sanders, Toronto’s former amateur scouting director, as his assistant GM. If your people are in demand, you’re doing something right.

On the other hand, Cherington and Sanders were among the Blue Jays’ most trusted decision makers. Replacing them wouldn’t be easy under any circumstances. And with the No. 5 pick in the 2020 draft just six months away, the Blue Jays are facing particular urgency when it comes to finding a replacement for Sanders.

“We’ll look to see if we can fill that void as soon as possible,” GM Ross Atkins told the Toronto chapter of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America Wednesday. “I suppose there could be a creative solution just because of where we are, but the most likely outcome would be to hire a scouting director before January.”

There’s no doubt the stakes are high as the Blue Jays approach their highest draft pick since 1997, when they selected Vernon Wells. At the same time, they can’t afford to wait.

From their own perspective, they need as much as information as possible ahead of next June’s draft. And while the Blue Jays are considering internal options to replace Sanders, they’re also looking outside the organization. Those conversations are still possible now, but as the draft approaches, rival teams will have little reason to allow their top people to interview elsewhere.

“The timing is tough,” Atkins said. “We basically have a week or two left while being respectful of other organizations and letting them know who we may have interest in and who we’d like permission to talk to. Maybe a little more than that, but once you get to the holidays, it really becomes uncomfortable to make those asks. Into January it’s essentially too late.”

In the meantime, the Blue Jays have the likes of Tony LaCava keeping tabs on the latest developments in the amateur world. LaCava, the team’s senior VP of player personnel, is a “stabilizing force” and “one of the best at what he does in baseball,” as Atkins put it. But even if he could theoretically replace Sanders, he’s more likely to remain in an advisory role.

Even if the Blue Jays don’t have time on their side, the job should appeal to executives around the game. Atkins has connections to a wide range of execs including Michael Holmes, the San Francisco Giants’ director of amateur scouting, and Billy Gasparino, his counterpart with the Los Angeles Dodgers, but the Blue Jays’ position wouldn’t be a promotion for either one. That could push the Blue Jays toward developing executives, but they’ll be mindful of experience as their search proceeds.

“It depends on how you define experience,” Atkins said. “Whether you’re talking about just having assistant director amateur scouting or national crosschecking experience versus someone that’s been a scouting director before or maybe it’s someone that’s only led before, but maybe it wasn’t in amateur scouting.”

In that sense, the presence of LaCava gives the Blue Jays flexibility. Regardless of whom Atkins hires, LaCava can complement that person’s skill set.

As for Cherington, there’s likely less urgency even though his position was more senior than Sanders’s. When the Blue Jays hired Cherington in 2016, they were eager to welcome someone with GM experience and a passion for player development. That combination isn’t necessarily easy to replace at a moment’s notice.

“To look for someone to do those things again is not what we’re looking for,” Atkins said. “We’re looking for someone who can help lead and help make an impact and complement where we are today and that’s somewhat of a different skill set. But having said that, if we could still have someone like Ben Cherington with his background, we would choose that.”

Asked for specifics on why Cherington and Sanders were such important contributors to the Blue Jays’ front office, Atkins offered these examples.

“Thinking about artificial intelligence, thinking about our makeup scores and makeup grades and how we’re actually weighting those as opposed to just talking about someone having good character or potentially being a good competitor,” he said. “Thinking about that in a much more objective and systematic way. Steve has been integral.”

“I think the biggest things, over those systems or programs,” Atkins continued, “Are just their impact on people and culture and environment. They’ve created really good ones that people wanted to be a part of. People were motivated and inspired being in and around them.”

Now, both Cherington and Sanders are gone. In the case of Cherington, that experience and expertise will be tough to replace. In the case of Sanders, the Blue Jays need someone as soon as possible. The timing’s undeniably inconvenient, but the Blue Jays see this as a positive, too.

“Once you get to the point that you are losing members of your front office to assistant GM roles and GM roles, we see that as a positive,” Atkins said. “It’s not ideal. We’d rather still have them here, but we still see it ultimately as a positive.”

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