The Toronto Blue Jays expect to make the World Series and they have big expectations for their minor-league system as well. Winning begets winning and General Manager Alex Anthopoulos made that clear when he was in Buffalo in November.
Anthopoulos brought assistant GM Andrew Tinnish with him for the Bisons’ logo unveiling press conference at Coca-Cola Field. Tinnish, in charge of procuring minor-league free agents for the Jays, needed to see his top affiliate’s new home.
“I wanted him to come up and see this place,” Anthopoulos said that day. “I told him, ‘See this? We’ve got to win, we’ve got to win.’ I probably put the heat on him a little too much but I reminded him. I wanted him to see the magnitude of it for himself, the ballpark, the scope of attention, focus, the interest level of this team and the impact he can have on it. I wanted him to feel it.”
The Blue Jays said they would make sure the Bisons would be stocked for the inaugural season of their affiliation and they’ve kept their word. Twenty-three players on the Bisons’ Opening Day roster have major-league experience and most have all kinds of Triple-A play on their resumes. All five members of the rotation are Triple-A stalwarts and three of them have huge chunks of big-league time.
The Bisons have not made the playoffs since they were a Cleveland affiliate in 2005. The Blue Jays haven’t gone in Triple-A since the 1998 Syracuse Chiefs were swept in three games by the Bisons. But this team as presently constructed seems built to play deep into September.
“On paper we should be really good,” second baseman Jim Negrych, the St. Francis product, said during spring training in Dunedin, Fla. “But paper is paper and it all depends on how we jell as a team and go out there and play. If you look at it from a name basis and go position from position, there’s not many teams that can run with us on paper.”
The Blue Jays’ biggest move may have come in the dugout, where veteran manager Marty Brown moved from Las Vegas to return to Buffalo. Brown managed the Herd from 2003 to ’05 and opens the season 15 wins shy of tying Brian Graham’s franchise record of 253 victories by a manager.
“When I first went into Buffalo, I’ll admit I was kind of like, ‘Oh, it’s just another city where you’re going to manage,’ ’’ Brown said. “But it turned into a lot more than that, just an incredibly special place. This is going to be an exciting time for everybody. So much is being said about the affiliation and what it means to Buffalo. We’re all looking forward to it.”
Here’s a look at how the Herd shapes up heading into the opener:
No Triple-A team has a rotation like this as the Bisons will start the season with right-handers Justin Germano, Ramon Ortiz, Dave Bush, Claudio Vargas and Todd Redmond.
Germano has a 90-59 minor-league mark and threw a perfect game for Columbus in 2011. Ortiz, soon to be 40, was a 13-game winner in Scranton last year and is a big-league veteran who won 15 games for the 2002 Anaheim Angels. That year, he won Game Two of the ALCS at Minnesota and Game Three of the World Series in San Francisco.
Bush, a 2002 Blue Jays draftee, had back-to-back 12-win seasons for Milwaukee in 2005-06. Redmond, who has pitched for Gwinnett the last four years, was in the top five in the IL in strikeouts in both 2010 and 2011. Vargas was 7-1 last year at Nashville while starting for the first time since 2007. He has pitched 217 big-league games (114 starts) for six teams.
The bullpen is a similar story with plenty of veterans, but it remains to be seen how roles will be filled out. Among notable names, Brad Lincoln is a former No. 1 pick of the Pittsburgh Pirates, Alex Burnett spent most of last year with Minnesota and Buddy Carlyle has big-league time with teams like the Yankees.
The catchers are both former Bisons from the Mets days in Josh Thole and Mike Nickeas, a Canadian who will be in Buffalo for parts of a fifth straight season. Thole caught Johan Santana’s no-hitter last season one day after coming to Buffalo on an injury rehab assignment. He batted just .171 in Toronto’s spring camp, landing him back at Triple-A.
The Bisons lost first baseman Lars Anderson on waivers to the White Sox on Monday but replaced him when the Blue Jays promoted Canadian Adam Loewen from Double-A. Loewen, the converted pitcher who played for the Herd last year as part of the Mets chain, can man first base and play right field.
Negrych will be starting a season in Triple-A for the first time, although he spent only three games last year at Double-A Harrisburg before Washington promoted him to his all-star season in Syracuse (.264-8-39).
Negrych’s double-play partner will be shortstop Ryan Goins, Toronto’s fourth pick in 2009. He batted .289 with seven homers and 61 RBIs at Double-A New Hampshire and made only 16 errors in 137 games between short and second.
Andy LaRoche, a regular at third for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2009 and 2010, will see the bulk of the work at third for the Bisons. He split time last year between Pawtucket and Columbus.
Luis Jimenez, a 280-pounder who punished balls during last year’s Triple-A All-Star Home Run Derby – they landed near the parking ramp in right field, can also help out at first base and figures to be the primary designated hitter. He had 20 homers and 81 RBIs last year at Tacoma of the Seattle chain.
Munenori Kawasaki, who spent last year in Seattle after a long career in Japan, can also help in the infield, especially at short.
“We’ve got a good group of guys, an older group that knows how to play the game and are willing to hold other players accountable,” Negrych said. “That’s good because it takes pressure off Marty when the players hold themselves accountable. We know what we want to do. We want to win games. If they’re not winning games, they will send somebody to Buffalo to win games.”
This is where the prospect hounds will be watching the Bisons. In speedy center fielder Anthony Gose and corner man Moises Sierra, the Bisons have two young players who already got a taste of Toronto and figure to have a major impact in Triple-A.
Gose, 22, is a major-league ready defender in center field who stole 70 bases two years ago in Double-A and 49 last year between Las Vegas and Toronto. His issue has been strikeouts. He simply needs to cut them way down. He’s averaged 125 a year the last four seasons — and had 160 last year.
“He’s got a chance to be really good,” Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said last week in Florida. “He just has to get his swing together, cut down on his strikeouts. That will be big for him. Defensively and on the bases, he’s pretty dog-gone good right now. He’s a 22-year-old kid probably where he needs to be. When he irons that bat out, who knows how good he can be?”
Sierra, a defensive standout for the Dominican Republic at the World Baseball Classic, averaged 17 homers and 65 RBIs over the last two years, and should be the primary right fielder. The other corner outfielder is veteran Ryan Langerhans, who has played 593 big-league games with five big-league teams. Buffalo fans might remember him as a standout outfield prospect in the Atlanta chain for the 2004 Richmond Braves, the team the Bisons beat in the Governors’ Cup finals to claim their last championship.
Mike McCoy, who spent plenty of time on the Toronto-Las Vegas shuttle last year, will be a utility player who can work well in both the infield and outfield. The same applies to Eugenio Velez, who has big-league time with the Dodgers and Giants and spent all of last year in Memphis of the Cardinals’ chain.