BUFFALO — Mike Buczkowski remembers the last time a mega prospect showed up at Coca-Cola Field. It was June 3, 2010 and the Bisons played host to the Syracuse Chiefs, whose starting pitcher that day was a 21-year-old named Stephen Strasburg.
The prized right-hander was the No. 1 overall pick in the MLB Draft the previous year and the Washington Nationals announced that his start in Buffalo would mark Strasburg’s final minor-league appearance before a call-up to the big leagues.
“I remember him warming up in the third-base bullpen and looking over and thousands of fans over on that side were just trying to get a picture or glimpse of him,” recalled Buczkowski, longtime general manager of the Bisons.
Despite it being a Thursday afternoon contest, 16,000 people showed up to watch Strasburg, who has since lived up to expectations and become a top-10 pitcher in MLB.
“It generated quite the excitement,” said Buczkowski. “But he wasn’t one of our guys.”
The Bisons, triple-A club of the Toronto Blue Jays since 2013, announced on Friday an extension to their affiliation agreement that will run through the 2020 season. That ensures plenty of the organization’s prized prospects will continue to pass through Buffalo, perhaps none more noteworthy than Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
The generational talent and son of Hall of Famer Vladimir Guerrero has cast a spotlight firmly on himself with an otherworldly offensive showing at double-A New Hampshire. Some scouts believe he can contribute to the major-league club right now, and the hype surrounding the 19-year-old third baseman has already reached peak levels among fans.
The drum beating has been heard in Buffalo, and Buczkowski, along with those in the Bisons organization, are on standby.
“I’ve been here 30 years and I can’t remember another player who was in the lower levels that has generated this much excitement,” he said. “We’re planning for the day that he comes here. We can’t rely on a player being here, so most of our marketing and internal efforts are to sell the baseball experience. Vlad will definitely add to that.
“It will make it that much more fun.”
Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins has said the club is staying disciplined in its assessment of Guerrero Jr.’s development. On Friday in Buffalo, Ben Cherington, Blue Jays vice-president of baseball operations, spoke of the value gained from exposing prospects to triple-A competition before an eventual promotion to the majors.
“We do feel like it’s important for players to play at the triple-A level. It’s an important development challenge to be here,” Cherington said. “We’ve got players here right now who we really believe in and believe are going to be good major-league players. They are being challenged by this level. This is an important level to be at for some period of time.
“It’s a different level of competition than double-A is,” he added. “Different kind of players you’re facing, different matchups, different game-planning strategies — it’s just a different level of play.”
The Bisons have benefited from a Blue Jays farm system that has been reinvigorated in recent years — the current roster features five of the organization’s top 15 prospects, according to MLB Pipeline. That has produced an attendance boost; about 25 per cent of individual game tickets are sold to fans living in Southern Ontario. When the Bisons were affiliated with the New York Mets, prior to 2013, that Canadian demographic accounted for roughly 12 per cent of sales.
The new agreement between the Blue Jays and Bisons came about quickly, with interest from both sides. It was talked about this past spring training and a deal materialized smoothly, according to Cherington.
“Proximity is important to us,” he said. “There is a competitive advantage to being so close to your triple-A affiliate. That was important. But it’s the people in Buffalo that stand out more than anything.”
With that deal wrapped up, Buczkowski can shift his focus to monitoring the boxscores while dreaming of a day when Guerrero Jr. dons the Bisons’ home whites.
“Hopefully it will be more than one game in Buffalo and we’ll have a chance to have people come see him,” said Buczkowski. “I think what’s going to make this even more exciting is the closeness to Toronto. When we were a Cleveland Indians affiliate, it was three hours away. You don’t decide at 5 p.m. to drive to Buffalo to see the game.
“Now, Blue Jays fans will be able to make a quick trip over the border to be able to see an exciting young player.”