BUFFALO – Gio Gonzalez started 32 big-league games last year and finished the season with a respectable 4.21 ERA. With their season on the line, the Milwaukee Brewers started him twice in the National League Championship Series. He might not be in his prime anymore, but Gonzalez undoubtedly remains an MLB-calibre arm.
After signing a late-spring deal with the New York Yankees, he’s now preparing for the season with their triple-A team, the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders. The left-hander’s not game-ready just yet, which is why he’s still ramping up in the minors, but even now he represents a legitimate challenge for triple-A hitters.
In that context, the home run that Cavan Biggio hit against Gonzalez has a little extra significance. Not only was it a lefty-on-lefty homer deep over the right-field wall at Sahlen Field, Biggio hit it in his first-ever game at triple-A. It was one of three hits he collected in an impressive debut for the Buffalo Bisons, who won their season opener 8-3.
“Gio’s got 10-plus years in the big-leagues and he’s a very good pitcher,” Biggio said. “I grew up watching him pitch and was just lucky enough to get a few barrels off him.”
After pulling his first two hits of the day, Biggio sprayed his third to left field. All afternoon, the approach impressed his manager.
“It looks like he has no problems with lefties,” Bobby Meacham said. “If they make a good pitch, they’ll get him, but if they don’t, they’ll make him pay.”
Bo Bichette’s triple-A debut wasn’t quite as productive. The 21-year-old shortstop went hitless in three at bats as the Bisons’ leadoff hitter, but he did draw a walk and score in the first inning, and reach on an error in the fourth. When he did reach, his reads on the basepaths stood out to Meacham.
“Really good instincts, period,” Meacham said. “On the bases that showed up not only today, but all spring long.”
Before long, Bichette and Biggio could have a familiar face join them. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. will begin a rehab assignment with the Class A Dunedin Blue Jays Thursday as he continues working his way back from an oblique strain. The Toronto Blue Jays will monitor his progress in Florida to determine when a promotion makes sense, with the Bisons likely his next destination.
Back in Buffalo after a whirlwind week, Anthony Alford contributed with two hard-hit singles from the number three spot. Of all the prospects on the triple-A roster, his path to Toronto had seemed clearest, but the acquisition of Socrates Brito complicates matters because the newcomer’s out of options while Alford can safely be stashed at triple-A.
Eventually, Alford will get another chance in the majors. In the meantime he’s watching his new teammates closely.
“Guys like that, they’re going to hit,” Alford said. “Biggio’s going to hit. Bo’s going to hit. I didn’t think they were pressing, especially it being their triple-A debut. I thought they did a really good job of staying calm and still being selective and having good at bats.”
On the mound, Jacob Waguespack impressed, holding the RailRiders to just one run over six innings of work. He struck out eight without walking a batter while sitting around 93 m.p.h. with his fastball.
Granted, the visitors had Gio Urshela in the number-three hole so you wouldn’t expect that much offence, but the Blue Jays still had to like what they saw from Waguespack, who was acquired for Aaron Loup at last summer’s trade deadline.
Already, the Blue Jays have called on projected triple-A starters Trent Thornton and Sean Reid-Foley to reinforce their rotation. It’s not lost on Waguespack that continued success in Buffalo could set him up for similar opportunities later in the season.
“Everybody’s goal is to get to the big-leagues,” Waguespack said. “Everybody in this locker room is one step away. There’s a lot of opportunity with the Blue Jays. I’m definitely glad to be here.”
As ever, one game only means so much in baseball. Both Waguespack and Biggio have plenty more work ahead. But when the game in question happens to be your triple-A debut and you take a major-league veteran deep, it might have a little more meaning than usual.
“Triple-A, you’re one step closer to your dream, to your goal,” Biggio said. “I think it was just a perfect opening day for our team.”
If he keeps this up, he won’t be in Buffalo when the Bisons’ season ends.