TORONTO - One point has been made to this corner plenty of times the last few weeks and it's a fair one: The Blue Jays' Triple-A team has not made the playoffs since Syracuse suffered a three-game sweep at the hands of the Bisons in 1998. In fact, Syracuse and Las Vegas had combined for 11 straight losing seasons until the 51s went 79-64 this year. So what's the point of the Herd dumping the Mets in favor of the boys across the border?
Look deeper. Toronto is a system on the rise, quickly becoming one of the most successful in the minors. A couple of longtime bird watchers told me last week in Rogers Centre that there's probably no better time for the Bisons to be hooking up with the Jays than right now. Under the rules linking the minors and majors, the Herd can sign a deal with the Blue Jays as soon as today. It will certainly happen at some point this week, with the Mets thus forced to head for Las Vegas.
While Toronto's Double-A New Hampshire club struggled to a 61-81 mark this year, it won the Eastern League championship in 2011. The Jays' four Class A affiliates combined to go 235-177 in 2012, led by the 82-55 mark of Lansing (Mich.). Vancouver won the Northwest League championship for the second straight year while Dunedin (Fla.) and Lansing also made their league playoffs by winning first-half championships.
Manager Marty Brown's Las Vegas team had a deep lineup that tied for the Pacific Coast League lead with a .298 batting average, and a solid pitching staff that tied for fifth in the league with a 4.59 ERA. That's pretty decent for that hitter-happy league and the best in Toronto's four seasons there.
Las Vegas went 73-49 following a 6-15 start. The 51s were hurt by deadline day trades of outfielders Travis Snider and Eric Thames and several callups to Toronto after injuries, notably to slugger Jose Bautista, riddled the parent club's lineup.
The Jays are a combined one game under .500 in Triple-A the last four years but the Bisons by comparison went 260-313 in the same span with the Mets - 28th out of the 30 Triple-A teams and ahead of only Rochester (Minnesota) and the Portland-Tucson entry that has been home to San Diego's top prospects.
In Baseball America's preseason talent rankings, the Blue Jays were listed fifth (the Mets were 25th). Fangraphs.com had the Jays at No. 2 (behind only the Padres) while the Mets were 16th. ESPN.com had the Jays No. 3 and said, "They are the organization most likely to be No. 1 on this list next winter." ESPN had the Mets 22nd.
Things got even better during the season. MLB.com issued a revised Top 100 prospects list last week and the Jays were the only organization to have seven players on it, finishing as the No. 5 organization.
MLB named Las Vegas' Travis d'Arnaud the No. 1 catching prospect in baseball and No. 12 overall. Acquired from Philadelphia for Roy Halladay, he hit .333 with 16 homers and 52 RBIs in 67 games in Vegas before a knee injury ended his season. While he could certainly start next year in Toronto, it's not outside the realm of possibility he would need time in Buffalo.
Center fielder Anthony Gose has stolen 104 bases in the minors the last two years and has been in Toronto twice this year after batting .286 in Las Vegas. Cuban shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria made the Triple-A All-Star Game in Buffalo and batted .312 in Vegas. Gose and Hechavarria are among the young players with the big club right now and thrived under Brown, the former Bisons manager who could return here next season.
"A number of guys got here before their original plan," Jays manager John Farrell told me Friday night in Rogers Centre. "They've been thrust into it and they've gained valuable experience. It's always best to see them in person. The one thing baseball can't emulate is the major-league environment in places other than the major leagues.
"It's how they respond to when they're on the road in a different setting, how they respond to bigger crowds, guys that they've seen on TV. The first-time they've experienced this level, you get a first-hand look. Guys respond to it differently."
The real attraction for the second half of next year in Buffalo and for 2014 comes from Lansing. Outfielder Kevin Pillar, 23, was named the league's MVP and was joined on the league all-star team by Justin Nicolino (left-handed starter) and Ajay Meyer (right-handed reliever). And Lansing is considered to have the most prospect-studded rotation in the minors with three top 2010 draft picks; there's a chance some of them see Buffalo later in 2013.
Right-hander Aaron Sanchez, a first-rounder, went 8-5, 2.49. Righty Noah Syndergaard, also a first-rounder, went 8-5, 2.60. Nicolino, a second-rounder, went 10-4, 2.46 with 119 strikeouts and just 21 walks in 124 innings. Anthony DeSclafani, a sixth-rounder in 2011, went 11-3, 3.37.
You have to be excited when you see prospects like this. The Mets did a terrific job getting young arms to Buffalo this year (Matt Harvey, Zack Wheeler, Jenrry Mejia, Jeurys Familia) but didn't have any young bats of note and the depth of their system doesn't come close to what the Blue Jays offer.
The farm system is what has Jays fans excited when they ponder the end of their 20-season postseason drought. Said one St. Catharines Jays fan on a ProSportsDaily message board last week: "Can't wait to head to Bisons games next year! I haven't been to one in five or six years but it's about time. Might even have to nab season tickets."
On the calendar
On the calendar
Road trippers take note: MLB rolled out the 2013 schedule last week for every team so you can start planning those summer sojourns. And it's a different look because of the Astros' move to the American League West as there will be at least one interleague series every day, from April to the closing day on Sept. 29. Opening day on April 1, for instance, will see the Angels start a three-game series in Cincinnati. The Yankees will play four games in September (two home, two away) against the Giants.
The formula for each club is simple: There will be 76 games within division (19 against each team), 20 interleague games and six or seven non-divisional opponents in the same league. Rivalries like Mets-Yankees, Cubs-White Sox will be cut from six games to four and will be played in consecutive two-game sets during Memorial Day week.
The Blue Jays will open the season against the Indians for the second straight year, this time on April 2 in Rogers Centre. The Yankees opener is April 1 against the Red Sox in the Bronx, although there's a good chance that will get pushed back to a March 31 Sunday night date for ESPN.
Interleague visitors to Toronto include the Braves, Giants, Rockies and Dodgers. If you're thinking about Cleveland, the Reds, Phillies and Nationals and Mets are there, with the Mets coming over a weekend Sept. 6-8.
Around & About
Around & About
. The Orioles entered the weekend first in the AL East even though they had a minus-20 run differential. Shows you what a 27-7 record in one-run games and 13 straight extra-inning wins will do. The Red Sox entered last in the division, even though they were just minus-21.
. The second-longest championship drought in the International League ended Thursday night when Pawtucket swept the Governors' Cup finals with a 4-1 win at Charlotte. The PawSox had not won the title since 1984. Syracuse remains without a title since 1976.
. Embattled Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine prior to Friday night's game in Rogers Centre, when asked if he could use a few reinforcements from Pawtucket after Tuesday's Triple-A National Championship Game: "Are you kidding? This is the weakest roster we've ever had in September in the history of baseball. It could use help everywhere."