BUFFALO, N.Y. – Moving quickly to cement a new relationship that’s met and exceeded the high expectations of both sides, the Toronto Blue Jays and triple-A Buffalo Bisons extended their player development contract for two more years through the 2016 season.
Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos and Bisons counterpart Mike Buczkowski signed the deal by the home dugout at Coca-Cola Field after the third inning of Buffalo’s 3-2 home finale win over the Rochester Red Wings on Thursday night, a moved cheered loudly by a crowd of 16,998.
“It’s gone exceptionally well, it’s the perfect fit for us,” said Anthopoulos. “We knew there was upside but it’s gone better than expected.”
The Blue Jays had long wanted to pair up with the Bisons, an easy two-hour drive from their Rogers Centre home, but the last time they were searching for a parent team Buffalo sought to make a New York state connection with the Mets.
That connection lasted four seasons before going sour, and with the Blue Jays desperate to move out of Las Vegas, they ended up as natural partners last fall, when a two-year deal was signed. About a month ago, Anthopoulos suggested extending things to Buczkowski as they sat in the Coca-Cola stands, and things moved quickly from there.
In their first season, the Bisons have seen their Canadian attendance double from roughly 10 per cent of their total gate to about 20 per cent. Overall, they drew 537,747 fans for 65 home dates (cut down by doubleheaders and rainouts) for an average of 8,273, compared to a total of 515,898 for a total of 70 home dates last year.
The average increase of 903, or 12.5 per cent, is the largest single-season attendance spike in the stadium's history.
"Everybody knew as the season wore on there'd be more and more people coming down from Canada and Toronto, checking out a lot of the younger players," said Bisons manager Marty Brown. "I don't know that anybody realized it would be as good as it's been with the fan-base we've drawn from Canada. They're seeing what a good product is being put out here for the fans, and they go out of their way here to make the Canadians feel welcome.
"It's been, so far, a very good partnership."
Logistically, the situation has been ideal for the Blue Jays, making urgent roster moves much easier to handle. Anthopoulos described the current set up as "the equivalent of flying first class, with the convenience, and to ever have to go back to something else would be very hard."
"It just gives you more time," Anthopoulos continued. "Last year, we're in the sixth inning and we have to make a decision, even though we'd like to see how someone wakes up the next day, you're flying players back and forth, they're staying in a hotel, they have to fly back the next day, it's tough to do, especially when they're not in Vegas and you can't get that direct flight.
"Logistically it's been night and day and that's to be expected."
The Blue Jays front office has also ended up seeing the Bisons more often.
"It's much more convenient and much easier to be able to shoot down and see starter, things like that," said Anthopoulos.
The 2014 rotation in Buffalo promises to be far deeper, something that will help both the Bisons and the Blue Jays. While the veteran-laden collection of minor-league free agents kept the triple-A team competitive, it wasn't of much help when the parent team needed help.
Next year's starting staff could feature Kyle Drabek, Drew Hutchison, Sean Nolin, Marcus Stroman and Deck McGuire, and provide a layer of depth with far more upside.
"I think we'll have a little bit more of a home-grown rotation," said Anthopoulos. "You've seen guys like Nolin up here now, Stroman will certainly have a chance to get up here, Deck McGuire has had a good final month in New Hampshire, looks to be turning it around, and definitely has a chance to be here. And then depending on what happens with guys like Kyle Drabek and Drew Hutchison, they have options remaining, they could be in this rotation, they could be competing for a spot in Toronto.
"You saw a pure minor-league free agent rotation to start the year, and now we even have guys who are the 40, whether it's Chad Jenkins that could be here, Thad (Weber) is on the 40-man as well, so hard to tell what the off-season brings, but there's a very good chance it's either guys on the 40 or homegrown guys that make up the rotation."
Also of note is that Anthopoulos, when asked about the organization-wide run of injuries, again mentioned the need for a review this winter.
"I think we have to, it's the second year now," said Anthopoulos. "Normally you can say it's one year, it may have been an anomaly, but there are certain types of injuries that we need to look at, and why they're happening. It's not always an easy thing to explain, but there's no doubt.
"That's why depth is so important, but at the same time, injury-prevention is more important than depth. Definitely something we're going to talk about."
NOLIN'S NIGHT: Sean Nolin, the left-handed pitching prospect still in the mix for a September call up from the Blue Jays, took a no-hitter into the sixth inning before surrendering a two-out, solo shot to shortstop Eduardo Escobar that opened the scoring.
That was Nolin's 100th pitch of the night, and ended a strong outing in which he allowed just the solo shot plus three walks with five strikeouts. He might have gone deeper had his command been crisper - just 55 of his 100 pitches were strikes.
"As much as he was trying to be aggressive in the zone and ahead in the count, he still would fight himself on losing pitches and that's youth," said Bisons manager Marty Brown. "Every pitch means something, don't just grab it and wing it. Hopefully he'll learn from tonight and go back out and understand that each pitch has to set up the next pitch and the next pitch. He's young, he's fiery, that's what makes him good. He just has to be smarter about it."
For Nolin, he said "it was tough to let up" the home run, adding, "the hit was all right, but to make it a home run and for them to get up 1-0 kind of got to me a little. But that's all I could do."
Still, the outing dropped his ERA in three triple-A starts to 1.53.
"Sean is always hard on himself," said Brown, "but he did a great job."
Note: Plans to make A.J. Jimenez a September call-up are on hold after the catching prospect was placed on the temporary inactive list Thursday after a nerve irritation issue in his surgically repaired right elbow flared up on him. Jimenez, who played in the Futures Games this summer, also missed some time earlier this season with the same problem and says the pain isn't as bad as last time. "It feels something like it but hopefully it's not as bad as it was before," he said. "Hopefully I take yesterday, take today off and I can be back tomorrow or the next day. … I feel so bad because at this point of the season you want to stay healthy and see what happens in September, but if I don't go up this year, it will be next year." The Blue Jays don't have any other catchers on the 40-man roster, which may create an opportunity for Mike Nickeas since a third catcher will definitely be added.