Blue Jays prospects provide hope for baseball renewal in Buffalo

Baseball Central’s Kevin Barker thinks Anthony Alford is very athletic in the outfield, but his inability to hit fastballs makes him question whether he’s an everyday player in the majors.

BUFFALO — A collision of sorts will occur in Buffalo this summer.

It’s been 14 years since the Bisons last reached the playoffs. Back in 2005, their roster included future big-leaguers like Brandon Phillips, Jeremy Guthrie and, as he was then known, Fausto Carmona. Buffalo went 82-62 that year, reaching the post-season for the ninth time in 11 seasons. But down the left field line at Sahlen Field, where the Bisons commemorate their top teams in ‘championship corner’ there’s nothing after 2005.

The 2019 edition of the Bisons will be among the more intriguing teams to take the field since. Their roster will feature Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio and, once he’s fully healthy, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. That group won at Class A Dunedin in 2017 and again at double-A New Hampshire in 2018.

So can they win again? Or will the drought in Buffalo continue? As the 2019 season begins, there’s hope that these prospects can call to mind the Bisons’ glory years with a memorable summer of their own.

“If you talk to Buffalo baseball fans, they remember those days,” Bisons play-by-play broadcaster Pat Malacaro said. “This could exceed what those teams did if the prospect channel that the front office has assembled really continues to cycle guys through.”

For the Blue Jays’ front office, cycling talent through Buffalo is considered a necessity rather than a luxury. Mark Shapiro, who oversaw the Cleveland farm system that stocked those Bisons teams in the 1990s and early 2000s, aims to build a similar talent pipeline with the Blue Jays.

“In an ideal state, we have a young talented core here in Toronto and a depth of talent at Buffalo (and throughout the system) that does not get rushed and even has to remain there a little longer than they would hope with the benefit being an even stronger foundation when they transition up here,” said Shapiro, the Blue Jays’ president and CEO.

“Triple-A is a tough level but when a player development system is rolling, the players know they will get an opportunity and they know how much we value them not only performing but being good teammates. Winning is an outcome of the approach to keep getting better and care about each other. Short answer, I hope we hang a few more banners there and that we are hanging them here simultaneously.”

Few major-league infields are as intriguing as the group in Buffalo. Thanks in large part to those three sons of big-leaguers, the Blue Jays’ farm system ranks third in the majors, according to Baseball America. Each of those prospects has a path to the major-leagues in 2019, but as long as they’re in triple-A, they intend to build on the team successes they’ve enjoyed at lower levels.

“Winning makes everything a lot more fun,” Biggio said. “When you’re trying to get better every day and trying to get yourself to the big-leagues, winning makes your development go by that much faster and be that much more fun instead of it being a grind all of the time.”

“They work hard,” added manager Bobby Meacham. “But it’s another step up when you expect to win. A lot of these guys have won the last two years, so that expectation creates excitement.”

Despite the excitement, the Bisons aren’t exactly a sure thing. Their top prospects could struggle in their first full seasons at triple-A. If they play too well, the Blue Jays would come calling. And that’s before we even get to the question of pitching.

Because triple-A teams are feeders for their big-league affiliates, the Bisons sometimes find themselves scrambling. When injuries on the Blue Jays’ pitching staff led to opportunity for Trent Thornton and Sean Reid-Foley, the Bisons suddenly found themselves short on starting pitching. As such, the opening day rotation consists of Jacob Waguespack, Shawn Morimando, Conor Fisk, Jordan Romano and David Paulino.

When it comes to prospect pedigree, that group’s far behind the Bisons’ infield, so they’re hoping to exceed expectations.

“We have a lot of talented guys,” Waguespack said. “People are going to want to see us play.”

Along with the starting rotation, the outfield looks vulnerable. Injuries to Dalton Pompey and Jonathan Davis cost the team valuable depth this spring. After the trade of Dwight Smith Jr. and the promotion Anthony Alford, the projected outfield consists of Roemon Fields, Andrew Guillotte and Jordan Patterson.

Throughout it all, Meacham will oversee a balancing act. His job: develop players at the minor-league level, meet needs at the major-league level and win. As the season unfolds, he’ll keep in touch with manager Charlie Montoyo and Blue Jays coaches such as Shelley Duncan and John Schneider.

At some point in the next month or so, someone from the Blue Jays could tell Meacham that Guerrero Jr.’s heading to the big-leagues. Depending on how Biggio and Bichette fare at triple-A, they have a chance to follow later this summer.

In the meantime, the Bisons have a legitimately interesting team on their hands. Last year, they averaged 8,250 fans per game, but once Guerrero Jr. joined the team on July 31, interest spiked.

“You noticed a difference,” said Malacaro, a Buffalo native who remembers the team’s glory years fondly. “For me it wasn’t necessarily the on-field stuff. I was excited for that, but when Vlad was at the plate, this place felt like a big-league stadium. There were 16,000 people here some nights. That’s a lot of people.”

The additions of Bichette and Biggio only add to the intrigue. Whether it’s for a few weeks or a full season, there’s reason to follow Buffalo baseball again.

“Baseball fans know who all of these players are, so to have them on the infield here with this team and then you’re going to add Vlad for however long he’s here, to me it’s a very unique experience that I’m not taking for granted,” Malacaro said. “I don’t know that we’ll see something like this again.”

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