Sanders’ departure creates questions for Blue Jays ahead of crucial draft

Toronto Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins, right, and Blue Jays president and CEO Mark Shapiro. (Nathan Denette/CP)

TORONTO – The Pirates’ front office overhaul has already cost the Blue Jays one of their top executives. Soon, it will cost them another.

As first reported by ESPN’s Jeff Passan and since confirmed by an industry source to Sportsnet, Blue Jays amateur scouting director Steve Sanders – considered by some a future GM – will be leaving the Blue Jays. His next job will be with Ben Cherington, the former Blue Jays executive who replaced Neal Huntington as Pittsburgh’s baseball ops leader last month.

While details of Sanders’ new role aren’t yet clear, it stands to reason that he’s joining the Pirates for a significant promotion such as assistant GM. According to a person close to the team, Cherington left the Blue Jays with an understanding that he wouldn’t deplete the Blue Jays’ front office unless a significant promotion was involved. That appears to be the case here.

Cherington, who’s perhaps best known for his time as Red Sox GM from 2011-15, became a key part of the Blue Jays’ decision making team following his September 2016 hire. His departure left the Blue Jays somewhat short-handed, but can’t be considered a complete surprise, either. With extensive experience and a track record of success, Cherington was bound to draw interest as a GM.

Some in the industry consider Sanders a future GM candidate, too. His baseball operations career began a decade ago when he interned for the Los Angeles Dodgers. He later worked for the Red Sox under Cherington before joining the Blue Jays in the fall of 2016.

His first draft, 2017, yielded Nate Pearson, now arguably the top pitching prospect in baseball. While 2017 first rounder Logan Warmoth has not lived up to expectations, third-round catcher Riley Adams has showed promise as a pro.

The 2018 draft yielded Jordan Groshans, who seemed poised for a breakout 2019 season before a left foot injury sidelined him, along with second rounder Griffin Conine and third rounder Adam Kloffenstein. More recently, Sanders’ 2019 draft produced Alek Manoah, Kendall Williams and Dasan Brown, among others.

Of course, evaluating those drafts won’t be possible for years, but there’s no debating the significance of Sanders’ absence. With next year’s draft just six months away, the Blue Jays must now backfill for an executive who was among the club’s inner circle at the GM Meetings in Scottsdale, Ariz. last month.

Senior VP of player personnel Tony LaCava mentored Sanders in Toronto and has extensive experience in amateur scouting, so it’s not as though the Blue Jays are completely depleted. The Blue Jays could rely on LaCava to guide the club’s amateur scouting efforts in 2020 or pair him with another emerging executive such as Sanders.

Either way, the stakes are high. The Blue Jays have the fifth overall pick in next year’s draft – a huge opportunity for the franchise to add an impact player, and the first time Toronto has picked this high since 1997. That selection led to Vernon Wells, underscoring the potential opportunity for Sanders’ replacement and the importance for the Blue Jays of finding the right successor.

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