Jim Negrych’s season ended with Monday’s finale in Syracuse and that’s no surprise. The Bisons’ second baseman did not get a call to join the Toronto Blue Jays for the last month of the season and thus wasn’t on the plane to Phoenix Tuesday morning with Buffalo teammates Kyle Drabek, Jeremy Jeffress, Ricky Romero, Luis Perez and Mike Nickeas.
(Memo to the Blue Jays: The callup of Romero and his 5.78 ERA is another column for another day but it’s an absolute joke).
Negrych was one of the hottest hitters in the minor leagues in the first half and was the starter for the International League in the Triple-A All-Star Game in Reno, Nev. But he batted just .208 the rest of the way and finished the season at .285 – after never having an average below .300 until Aug. 3.
The St. Francis product was broken down some physically by a nagging Achilles problem but it’s clear he was broken down mentally as well. You probably would be, too, after doing anything and everything that could have been asked for nearly five months and not getting your first callup to the big leagues.
“It was tough,” Negrych admitted when I reached him on his cell phone Tuesday afternoon. “There’s no doubt I felt I deserved to go up this year more than any other year I’ve been playing professionally. I felt I deserved a chance to go to Toronto and make my debut but it just didn’t work out that way.”
Negrych didn’t deserve to go up in September. Fair enough. But he certainly did in April, May or June. That’s where the Blue Jays failed him.
Negrych hit .394 in big-league spring training, with manager John Gibbons telling me one morning in March in Dunedin, Fla., that he might have been the MVP of the camp. He came to Buffalo and continued to be the surprise of the organization, going 3 for 5 on the Bisons’ Opening Day and staying hot for weeks.
Negrych hit .429 in April, putting up XBox numbers. His batting average was at .433 on May 11 and didn’t fall below .400 until May 18. He was still over .350 on June 13.
“I really did think the call was coming, and I think a lot of people did,” Negrych said. “I didn’t think there was anything blocking me from going up at the time I was hot. Any time you have a guy who’s still hitting .350 by the middle of June, odds are they usually go up.
“Whether it was first month, second month, third month or even when it was all said and done I thought I had good numbers for this level but that’s just the way it goes.”
There were, however, things blocking Negrych. He wasn’t a 40-man roster player and the Blue Jays seemed loathe to create a spot for him. They had Macier Izturis on a multi-year deal and Emilio Bonifacio new to the clubhouse off the big winter trade with Miami and weren’t nearly ready to admit he was a mistake.
Then came the Munenori Kawasaki factor. A minor-league signee, the Japanese import became a fan and clubhouse favorite who got three separate callups from Buffalo. And for what? Kawasaki is batting only .220 in the big leagues with limited defensive range. He hit .250 with the Bisons and didn’t have a single extra-base hit.
It’s clear the Blue Jays pandered to their Asian fan base in Toronto with the repeated callups of Kawasaki, who gets huge ovations at Rogers Centre whenever he emerges from the dugout. When he was sent to Buffalo in late June, Gibbons actually had to call a meeting to explain the demotion of a backup infielder. That shows you how fragile the Toronto clubhouse was.
I asked Negrych about Kawasaki and he took the high road, calling him “a great guy and a better teammate.” But I’m pegging him as the unexpected guy who blocked Negrych’s road more than anybody else.
I didn’t call the Blue Jays to inquire about Negrych. Didn’t need to.
The answers are well-known. He didn’t finish the season well and really only projects to be a second baseman because his arm strength and throwing motion don’t really mesh well at third base. And the Jays have Ryan Goins getting a big September tryout at second so there wouldn’t be many at-bats for Negrych.
For his part, Negrych said he enjoyed the season in Buffalo. Through all their injuries and callups, the Bisons were in the playoff hunt until the 142nd game of the season.
Negrych said manager Marty Brown was great to play under and kept the team focused. Late in the season, however, Brown made a few veiled comments to the media about players’ focus. They seemed like references to Negrych, who said he took them to be generalities about the team.
“Marty was very honest and open with me,” Negrych said. “If he has an issue, he’s going to tell that person and say, ‘I don’t think you’re giving me what you got,’ and he never did that with me one time. He told me at the end of the year I gave it my all every time I was out there.”
Negrych and his fiance, Nicole Rossi, are getting married in Pittsburgh in November. He’ll spend the winter pondering his next move. He wants a shot at the big leagues. Home would be nice. He said his season in front of family and friends will be a great memory.
But after 796 minor-league games and a .296 batting average, Negrych is stuck on a nagging question: If the Blue Jays didn’t call him up this year, when would they ever give him a shot? Looking elsewhere seems likely.
“It’s something I’ll have to think about when that time comes,” he said. “When you hit .400 for a team during spring training and then do it again for the first month of the season and don’t get called up, that’s tough. I don’t play this game solely to be in the minor leagues. You’re always looking for someone to give you an opportunity to go to the next level.”