The Buffalo Bisons play their first game of the season this afternoon, and in doing so, officially begin a new era of Triple-A baseball in the city of Buffalo and under the Toronto Blue Jays.
After the Syracuse Chiefs, Toronto’s longtime Triple-A affiliate, cut ties with the organization at the end of the 2008 season, the Blue Jays had been eagerly looking for a way to return to the International League. Instead, the Jays were forced to play minor-league-affiliate musical chairs and settle for a pair of two-year player development contracts with the Las Vegas 51s—a less than ideal location over 2200 miles from Toronto.
Up in New York, the Bisons were having a tough time in those same four seasons as the Triple-A affiliate of the New York Mets, failing to make the playoffs and finishing over .500 in a season just once. The Bisons were looking for a change after a dismal 260-313 record over that span, and with Toronto having completely revamped their farm system into one of the best in baseball under general manager Alex Anthopoulos, a new contract between the Blue Jays and Bisons made sense from both baseball and location standpoints.
After the Buffalo signed a two-year player development contract with Toronto this past fall, the Blue Jays have been doing everything in their power over these last few months to make a good impression on their new affiliate, as members of the Blue Jays front office have attended every press conference held by the Bisons this offseason, for example. But a long relationship between the two clubs will only come with winning on the baseball field, which is why the Blue Jays have done their best to make sure that happens as well.
While this year’s Bisons roster might only feature three younger, up and coming players in Anthony Gose, Moises Sierra and Ryan Goins, it’s made up of an impressive group of experienced veterans. In fact, 23 of the 25 players on the Bisons’ Opening Day roster have reached the majors and combined for 3,299 big league games. The Blue Jays are hoping that this unique and talented group of players carries the Bisons to their first playoff berth since 2005 and restore a winning culture around the team.
2B – Jim Negrych
CF – Anthony Gose
RF – Moises Sierra
1B – Luis Jimenez
3B – Andy LaRoche
C – Josh Thole
LF – Ryan Langerhans
DH – Eugenio Velez
SS – Ryan Goins
The Bisons entered the offseason anticipating the contributions of catcher Travis d’Arnaud and shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria in 2013, but even though both players were traded over the winter, there will still be some exciting young players to watch in Buffalo this year.
Leading the way is the young center fielder Gose, who Jays fans got to see for 56 games last season. Prior to his call-up, the 22-year-old made strides at Triple-A Las Vegas last season, cutting down his strikeout rate and seeing more pitches in at-bats, all while playing Gold Glove-caliber defense and being active on the base paths. Armed with a to-do list in 2013 of working on his bunting and continuing to refine his approach at the plate, among other things, Gose will surely be a fan favorite this season and it will be fun to watch him take the next steps in his development.
Another position player returning to Triple-A that spent time with the Blue Jays last season is right fielder Moises Sierra. Blue Jays fans were able to see exactly what I saw from Sierra while down in Las Vegas, which is that he plays the game hard all the time. Sierra will obviously take his time with the Bisons to work on his defense, as his miscues in Toronto were well documented, but his cannon of an arm will surely win over some new fans in Buffalo. 51s hitting coach Chad Mottola (now with the Blue Jays) told me last June that he feels Sierra has the most raw power in the entire Blue Jays organization. Sierra is still working on translating that into games, as well as his overall approach at the plate. Entering only his age-24 season, though, 2013 could be a big year for him.
Rounding out the top of the Bisons’ batting order is second baseman and Buffalo native Jim Negrych. Negrych, 28, was a pleasant surprise to Buffalo media at the Bisons’ logo unveiling in November, when he was on site to sign his new minor league contract with the Blue Jays with an invite to spring training. After a 2012 season with Triple-A Syracuse that earned him an all-star appearance, Negrych had a fine spring camp with the Jays, hitting .412/.487/.676 in 34 at-bats.
The two players entrusted with the bulk of RBI opportunities are the Bisons’ corner infielders, as first baseman Luis Jimenez and third baseman Andy LaRoche make up the heart of the Bisons’ batting order.
A veteran of 962 minor league games across 11 minor league seasons, Jimenez made his major league debut as a 30-year-old with the Seattle Mariners last season. He raked for Seattle’s Triple-A affiliate in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League last season—to the tune of a .310 average, .907 OPS and 54 extra-base hits in 125 games—but owns a career minor league .287/.371/.474 slash line so his numbers shouldn’t fall off too much returning to the International League.
LaRoche, 29, gives the Bisons an experienced option at the hot corner, as the Fort Scott, Kansas native has logged 818 games at third base between the major and minor leagues. Coming off a 2012 campaign that he spent entirely at the Triple-A level with Columbus (Indians) and Pawtucket (Red Sox), LaRoche saw a power increase and will look to continue that with the Bisons this season.
Getting the bulk of catching duties for Buffalo will be 26-year-old Josh Thole, who caught R.A. Dickey‘s Cy Young Award-winning season last year with the New York Mets. Outside of a two-game stint last year, Thole hasn’t played in the minors since 2010 when he was with, you guessed it, the Buffalo Bisons. After seeing his major-league slash line decrease for three consecutive seasons, Thole finds himself back at Triple-A to work on his offensive game as an everyday catcher; an opportunity he would not have had had he gone north with the Blue Jays out of spring training.
Joining youngsters Gose and Sierra in the outfield is 33-year-old Ryan Langerhans, who’s appeared in 593 major league games and another 1124 in the minors. Langerhans slots in as the Bisons’ everyday left fielder after spending the 2012 season with Triple-A Salt Lake in the Angels organization, hitting .250 with an .816 OPS in 96 games. The 2013 season marks Langerhans’ return to the International League, where he last played for Triple-A Syracuse in 2009.
Signed by the Blue Jays to a minor league deal in December, 30-year-old Eugenio Velez gives Bisons manager Marty Brown versatility in his lineup, as the switch-hitter can play every outfield position as well as second base, shortstop and third base. Velez returns to the minor league system where he began his professional career, as he was signed as an amateur free agent out of the Dominican Republic by the Blue Jays in 2001. Velez spent the entire 2012 season with Triple-A Memphis in the Cardinals organization, where he hit .280 with an .807 OPS in 136 games. Velez also brings an element of speed to the lineup and as a pinch runner, as he went 37-for-46 in stolen base attempts last year—his highest stolen base total since 2007.
Making his Triple-A debut and rounding out the Bisons’ batting order is 25-year-old Ryan Goins, who quietly put together a solid season offensively at Double-A New Hampshire last year. In addition to hitting over .280 and managing a .340 on-base percentage for the second consecutive season, Goins set new career highs in doubles (33), home runs (7), RBI (61), walks (47) and stolen bases (15). Goins will probably put on more of a show defensively at shortstop this season, though, as aspects of his game that you don’t see on a website, like his arm and range, are underrated. After seeing Goins first-hand last year on a trip to New Hampshire, then-Fisher Cats manager Sal Fasano had some kind words for me about his shortstop. I walked away from New Hampshire impressed with Goins, and recently chose him as the Bisons’ prospect to watch in the Toronto Star’s 2013 minor league primer.
Listed as a first baseman, Canadian Adam Loewen will back up Jimenez at the position, but he’s also an option to play the odd game in the outfield, considering he’s logged 318 games between the three outfield positions since the Blue Jays converted him from a pitcher to a position player in 2009. After Lars Anderson was traded to the White Sox shortly after clearing waivers, Loewen was promoted to Buffalo from Double-A New Hampshire.
Joining Loewen as potential outfield depth is frequent flyer Mike McCoy, who’s listed as a second baseman and will also see backup time in the infield as well. Rounding out the fielding reserves is Kagoshima, Japan native Munenori Kawasaki, who the Jays signed to a minor league contract last month. Kawasaki, 31, signed a minor league contract with the Mariners last January after playing in Japan, playing 61 games with Seattle before being released in October.
Backing up Thole at catcher is Canadian Mike Nickeas, who came to the Blue Jays organization in the Dickey trade. He’s not listed on the Jays’ 40-man roster, meaning that he should be in line to catch a chunk of Bisons games should Thole be required at the major league level for any reason.
Named the Bisons’ Opening Day starter on Tuesday, right-hander Justin Germano will pitch in the International League for the fourth consecutive season in 2013. Armed with a four-pitch mix of fastball, slider, curveball and changeup, Germano joins the Bisons after dazzling for Triple-A Pawtucket last season and eventually making 12 starts at the big-league level for the Cubs. Germano, 30, threw a perfect game for Triple-A Columbus in 2011 and was signed to a minor league contract by the Blue Jays back in November.
Ramon Ortiz might be the oldest player on the Bisons’ 2013 roster at 40 years of age, but he’ll eat innings and bring a wealth of experience to the club after 11 years and 1423 innings in the big leagues. The right-hander spent the 2012 season with the Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes Barre Yankees and went 13-6 with a 3.45 ERA in 27 starts.
One of the few remaining active players with ties to the Montreal Expos, Claudio Vargas made his major league debut with them in 2003. Since then, he’s bounced around the National League with stops in Arizona, Milwaukee, New York and Los Angeles. After returning to the Brewers organization last season, Vargas made 20 starts for their Triple-A affiliate in Nashville before making a brief appearance in the Mexican League.
A name very familiar to Blue Jays fans, Dave Bush returns to the organization that drafted him in the second round back in 2002. Last year was the first season where Bush failed to make an appearance in the majors since his big-league debut back in 2004, having spent the entire 2012 campaign with Triple-A Lehigh Valley in the Phillies organization. Bush, 33, only logged 11 starts for the IronPigs last season, so it will be interesting to see if he can give the Bisons a full season’s worth of innings this year.
27-year-old right-hander Todd Redmond rounds out the Bisons’ rotation, returning to the International League for the for the fifth consecutive season. Splitting time with Triple-A Gwinnett (Braves) and Triple-A Louisville (Reds) in 2012, Redmond managed an 8.2 K/9, 2.4 BB/9 and 3.63 ERA in a combined 148 2/3 innings. The St. Petersburg, Florida native was a shrewd pickup by Blue Jays assistant general manager Andrew Tinnish, as Redmond has made at least 24 starts and logged 145 innings in each of the last seven minor league seasons. He’s the only member of the Bisons’ rotation currently listed on the Blue Jays’ 40-man roster.
While their roles are up in the air, the Bisons have a nice mix in their bullpen with five right-handers and a pair of lefties.
Hinshaw, the first lefty, has balanced his spotty command with his ability to rack up strikeouts, as evidenced by his career 6.2 BB/9 and 11.1 K/9 in eight minor league seasons. After spending the last five seasons in the Pacific Coast League while making major-league appearances for the Padres and Giants, Hinshaw, 30, will make his International League debut with the Bisons this year.
Perez, another lefty and much like Hinshaw, can rack up the strikeouts and will also his share of free passes, as evidenced by his 165 strikeouts to 65 walks in 124 innings over the last three seasons. Perez, 34, last pitched in the International League in 2011 with the Lehigh Valley IronPigs.
Drafted as a starter in the Twins organization, Alex Burnett started pitching exclusively as a reliever in 2009 before making his major league debut for Minnesota in 2010 as a 22-year-old. He’s logged 170 big league innings over the last three seasons with so-so results, but as one of only two relievers on the Bisons’ roster that is on the Jays’ 40-man roster, he provides depth.
As a 34-year-old last season, right-hander Buddy Carlyle had his best year since returning from Japan, logging a career-high 76 relief innings for the Gwinnett Braves. He improved both his walk and strikeout rates and should be a dependable piece for his manager this season.
The bullpen arm I’m most intrigued about is Brad Lincoln, who was acquired by the Blue Jays from the Pirates for Travis Snider last season. Lincoln was a nice piece for Pittsburgh, providing starts when needed but also eating high-leverage relief innings as well. The third and final member of the Bisons’ pitching staff on the Jays’ 40-man roster, Lincoln will likely be the first pitcher called up in the event someone is needed.
After spending his first full season in the Astros organization in 2012, Mickey Storey got himself noticed with a 3.05 ERA and 5:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 65 innings (two starts) for Triple-A Oklahoma City. The then 26-year-old was called up and made his major league debut when Francisco Cordero went on the 15-day disabled list. He stuck with the Astros for the remainder of the season and held his own, compiling a 3.86 ERA and 34 strikeouts in 30 1/3 innings. Going by just stats alone, Storey looks to be a favorite for a late-inning role in Buffalo this year.
A veteran of seven minor league seasons, 29-year-old right-hander Neil Wagner will look to regain his strikeout prowess with the Bisons this season, having managed a 3.77 ERA and 10.2 K/9 over the course of his minor league career. In a 2012 campaign split between Triple-A Tucson and Triple-A Sacramento, Wagner’s strikeout rate dropped to eight batters per nine innings en route to a combined 5.46 ERA.
The Bisons’ season gets underway at 2:05 pm today at Coca-Cola Field against the Rochester Red Wings. Get your tickets over at Bisons.com; they start at only $9!