BUFFALO — First, Rowdy Tellez got the call. Less than a week later, it was Anthony Alford.
Player by player, the old Blue Jays teams are disappearing, most recently with the trade of Kevin Pillar to the Giants. But each time the Blue Jays deal away established veterans, more playing time opens up at the major-league level. For players on the ascent, that opportunity’s encouraging even if they hold the likes of Pillar and Kendrys Morales in high regard.
“It’s definitely exciting,” Cavan Biggio said at Sahlen Field Tuesday afternoon. “With this rebuild, it makes things a little bit more exciting. It allows things to be more easygoing in your work and just focused on getting better. Hopefully at the end of the day, you get the call.”
When the Bisons open their season Thursday, Biggio and Bo Bichette will be on the roster. Once he gets enough reps in extended spring training games, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. will join them. As triple-A infields go, that’s about as good as it gets, even if it might not remain in place for long.
“I think they know how to push each other,” manager Bobby Meacham said. “Even if they don’t talk a lot about it, I’m sure there’s a lot of competition with all three of those guys, Vladdy included, to try to steal the headlines away from all of them and get some headlines themselves. We’re competing against the other team, but a lot of times it’s good to be able to push each other as teammates, too.”
While Guerrero Jr. has some experience at triple-A, this is a new challenge for Biggio and Bichette, who spent all of last year at double-A New Hampshire on the way to the Eastern League championship. But as Bichette went about his business on a cool afternoon in Buffalo Tuesday, he didn’t seem like someone who wants to spend much time at triple-A.
Wearing a toque and a long-sleeved blue T-shirt, he took swings in the indoor batting cage then fielded ground balls along with fellow infielders. In between, he explained that he expects his strong spring showing to carry over into the regular season.
“I went into spring training wanting to put up numbers and wanting to make sure that people knew that I was ready to play in the big-leagues,” Bichette said. “I think I accomplished that.”
Now 21 years old, Bichette ranks eighth among all prospects, according to Baseball America. Reinforcing his prospect pedigree, he hit .417 this spring with four home runs and a 1.308 OPS. Did those results exceed expectations?
“Not for myself,” Bichette said. “Probably for a lot of other people, I’d imagine, but definitely not for myself.”
Maybe some were surprised by the offensive outburst, but Biggio wasn’t among them. The two prospects have played together throughout the minor leagues since being drafted in 2016 so Biggio has watched first-hand as Bichette has posted a minor-league batting line of .328/.385/.521.
“He’s a freak of nature as a hitter,” Biggio said. “If you want to become the best hitter you can, you’re going to ask him questions even if he is three years younger than you.”
While there’s no guarantee that Guerrero Jr. will stick at third base, Bichette continues to play strong defence at shortstop. His time in big-league spring training boosted his confidence as a defender.
“I thought I was really good,” Bichette said. “I thought I proved that I could play there and not just play there, but be really good there.”
Still, that performance wasn’t enough to earn a spot on the Blue Jays’ Opening Day roster. From a player development standpoint, the Blue Jays understandably want to see him tested at triple-A before promoting him to the majors. On and off the field, there are lessons to be learned at every level. Plus, when you’re talking about elite prospects, service time typically enters the equation.
Teams are now so cautious with the service time of top prospects that it stands out when a team makes decisions based on talent alone. When the Padres ignored service time altogether and broke camp with Fernando Tatis Jr. last week, Bichette took note, posting a picture of the 20-year-old shortstop on his Instagram. So if the likes of Tatis Jr. and Eloy Jimenez are ready for the majors, is he ready, too?
“One hundred per cent,” Bichette said. “I feel ready. It is what it is. There are so many more factors that go into it rather than performance, but I’m just going to control what I can control and get off to a good start here.”
Best-case scenario, Bichette does just that and sustains it into the summer. At that point, the Blue Jays would have to give real consideration to calling him up, especially if he continues playing well on defence.
That’s still a ways off, though. Tellez has played in 234 games at triple-A. Alford has played in 108. For Bichette to reach the majors much more quickly, he’d likely need an exceptional performance this year. Starting Thursday, we get to see if that happens.
“I’m excited to see if they’re as good as everyone’s saying they are,” Meacham said.