"JUST A GUY I WANT TO FOLLOW"
By David Singh in Toronto and Buffalo
"JUST A GUY I WANT TO FOLLOW"
By David Singh in Toronto and Buffalo
How Cavan Biggio became a guiding light and steadying presence for the Blue Jays' young core

Bo Bichette is sitting in the dugout at Buffalo’s Sahlen Field and he’s just made some comments that will set off a mini-firestorm in Toronto. It’s mid-July and the Bisons shortstop has listed, out loud and on the record, all the boxes he’s checked to warrant a promotion to the majors. He’s frustrated, and it’s not hard to see why he needs to vent. This period of his career is a clear challenge for the top prospect. Each day is fraught with a burning desire to be somewhere else.

Cavan Biggio is one of the guys who moved on. The two rose through the Blue Jays minor-league system together but separated a couple of months back when Biggio was summoned to The Show. Seeing his buddy promoted ahead of him could have easily stirred up some resentment in Bichette at this restless juncture of his young career, but rather than begrudge his fellow infielder, Bichette turned to Biggio for support — the two chat on the phone nearly every other day. “He just tells me, ‘Hey, if you get mad, if you get upset, call me, we’ll talk,’” Bichette says. “He’s there for me. He wants me up there. And he knows that I want to be up there and it’s not the easiest thing to handle, cause he went through it too — sitting here, wondering when he was going to go up.”

Bichette, 21, joined the Blue Jays less than two weeks after that conversation and proceeded to back up his bold comments with an historic opening to his MLB career. And standing to his left on the field all along has been Biggio, the club’s 24-year-old second baseman. The pair, along with Vladimir Guerrero Jr., are expected to front the nucleus of the Blue Jays’ next contender — a core that, depending who you ask, also includes Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Danny Jansen and Randal Grichuk. Bichette and Guerrero boast otherworldly ability and potential as hitters. Biggio can hold his own with the stick, but he’s also been earmarked for a different contribution: He’s expected to be one of the leaders of this team.

Manager Charlie Montoyo made that clear earlier this season when he encouraged Biggio and catcher Jansen, also 24, to go out and help captain the ship, and there have already been signs that Biggio has taken ownership in the Blue Jays clubhouse. “He’s just a guy that I want to follow,” Jansen says. “He just has that attitude.”

Adds Justin Smoak, the team’s elder statesman: “Even now, if a lot of the younger guys want to talk, they might go to him more [than me] just because, at times, he was that guy for them in the minor leagues.”

It might not be surprising for the son of a Hall of Famer to seem particularly comfortable in an MLB clubhouse, but Biggio’s journey hasn’t been clear or assured. He’s had to lean on his smarts and drive to wring every ounce of talent out of his body and has now emerged as a player whose value to the Blue Jays goes well beyond statistics.

THINKING MAN'S GAME
Lacking the otherwordly physical tools of teammates like Guerrero Jr., Biggio has used smarts and drive to maximize his talent

The family room walls of Patty Biggio’s house took a severe beating from her middle child. When Biggio was a young boy, he’d often grab a kid’s bat and ball and self-toss pitches, devising a whole game in his head that nobody was allowed to interrupt — not his older brother Conor, baby sister Quinn, or even his MLB-playing father Craig could steal an at-bat. In fact, he didn’t even allow them in the room. When the balls ripped from overuse, Biggio would simply tape them up and get back to business. “Every six months, I would have to have the family room repainted from Cavan dinging the wall from how much he played,” Patty recalls.

Patty has many pictures of Biggio from their days in the stands at Houston’s Minute Maid Park, but every image is essentially the same: The youngster sitting still, one foot crossed underneath his body to provide a slight boost, intently watching his father’s Astros. While Conor was socializing or cheering with the crowd, trying his darndest to be featured on the stadium’s video board, Biggio made mental notes of on-field minutiae that he later articulated at home to his parents. The boys were frequent visitors to the Astros clubhouse, saddling up to their father and teammates, like Jeff Bagwell and Brad Ausmus. In this environment, Biggio could observe how big-league players went about their business, an opportunity that his Blue Jays teammates now point to as a major influence for him.

Summers inside a big-league clubhouse couldn’t have hurt, but Patty describes Biggio as self-taught. “Craig would be there and help, but was not consistent enough to have taught him what he knows now,” she says, acknowledging the large chunks of time on the road that came with her husband’s 20-year Hall-of-Fame career. “I think he really learned from watching and practising himself … that’s why he’s so confident in his approach.”

When Biggio was playing for Team USA’s under-18 squad in 2012, his father was around — he would drop by practices and chat with manager Scott Brosius, a former all-star with the Yankees, about their playing days and about Cavan. But he never tried to insert himself in the process; he wasn’t the type of helicopter parent all too familiar to coaches of young players. He let Biggio figure things out for himself and, to that end, the young left-handed hitter says the national team experience shaped him as a player.

Biggio survived a rigorous selection process that ran through the Tournament of Stars and team trials, and eventually made the 20-man roster that headed to Seoul for the 18U Baseball World Championship. Competing for his country — and winning gold — exposed him to a do-or-die situation unlike anything he’d played in before. “The only thing I could really compare it to was playoff baseball, where nothing matters except for wins,” Biggio says. “So, whatever it takes — bunting a guy over, sac flies. You don’t care about how you do it, all you care about is winning. When we go through the minor leagues, when we go through college, we kind of lose the thought that, ‘Hey the main goal is to win.’

“That experience helped me apply [the philosophy of] not worrying about individual stats, individual performances. The main goal of it is to win.”

Brosius was around Biggio for about a month and remembers a player who, from a physical standpoint, was behind Joey Gallo and Addison Russell, both of whom played on the 2011 American squad and also went on to become big leaguers. But even though he needed to develop more strength and grow into his frame, Biggio could hit and brought intangibles that attracted the coach. When he struggled offensively at points during the tournament, Biggio continued to exude calmness and a sense of inner confidence. He didn’t ride the highs or lows, and that showed Brosius all he needed.

“Cavan is not that guy where the tools are just going to jump off the page,” Brosius says. “He’s had to grind and continue to develop his game and get better. Some of that comes from inside — that says, ‘This is what I want to do and I’m willing to do what it takes to get there.’”

MAXIMUM EFFORT
“What drives me is just my love for the game and my wanting to be the best possible player that I can be,” Biggio says.

Gil Kim vividly recalls the stress of his first summer as Blue Jays director of player development. Many members of his staff were in their first year together in the organization, so there was a general challenge of acclimatization, and the staging of a draft mini-camp in June 2016 brought its own unique hurdles. The camp’s purpose was to help the high school- and college-aged players adjust to the organization and pro ball, and it wasn’t until Kim and Co. finally got to the field on Day 1 to watch hitters take BP that they truly had a chance to slow down and be present in the moment.

Biggio, who’d just been drafted in the fifth round (162nd overall) out of the University of Notre Dame, certainly helped put Blue Jays brass at ease. He just had a different air about him than most other prospects. This was the first time many players were taking BP as professionals and the understandable nerves were showing themselves in the form of foul balls and cage pop-ups. That wasn’t the case for Biggio, though. “He squared every ball up in BP through the middle of the field to left-centre,” Kim says. “That was very impressive.”

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This past July, when Kim recounted that story to Biggio, he misremembered a detail and walked away from the conversation with a new level of appreciation for the young second baseman. “I actually had the field number wrong and he corrected me,” says Kim with a laugh. He’d thought that BP session took place on field No. 3 at the Bobby Mattick Training Center, turns out it was No. 5. “He’s very perceptive and he’s very aware of his surroundings, of people, of interactions,” says Kim. Even as a kid, Biggio surprised his mother by picking up on little things in the Astros clubhouse, or remembering exact details from his father’s games or from family vacations.

When he was drafted, Biggio was described by Baseball America as a player with an “intelligent approach,” but only “modest” tools. He was projected to be a fringe major-leaguer. However, after the 2017 season, which he spent at advanced-A Dunedin, Biggio made significant offensive adjustments to prepare for the next campaign, lowering his hands during his pre-pitch set-up to keep his bat in the zone longer and adding a load phase that helped him better transfer weight into his swing. That resulted in a breakout 2018 that saw him hit .252/.388/.499 with 23 doubles and 26 home runs at double-A, impressive numbers that netted him the Eastern League MVP award. “We were able to use him as an example this year to some of the newly drafted players,” says Kim. “An example of how important it is to focus on every single day, on every single rep, because this process will sometimes happen pretty quickly and it was just three years ago that Cavan was sitting in those very same seats.”

EYE FOR DETAIL
Biggio, right, always showed uncommon focus as a kid at his dad's games and in MLB clubhouses

But Biggio’s success doesn’t begin and end with swing changes. “When you’re identifying and acquiring players, organizations don’t always know the full and true extent of how badly a player burns to get better,” Kim says. “How much passion a player has to win, how much aptitude a player possesses — those areas. And we would point to his makeup and his passion to get better and his competitiveness as key factors in him boosting his prospect status over the last three years.”

From the moment he entered the pro ranks, Biggio had been prepared to work hard, knowing he’d have to earn everything. “I really wasn’t that big of a prospect out of the draft,” he says. “I was always a guy that knew the type of skillset that I had and where I could take myself, and I just stuck my nose down and didn’t look left or right at what people were saying about me. I continued to work and continued to get better and continued to do my thing because I knew the potential I had.

“What drives me is just my love for the game and my wanting to be the best possible player that I can be,” he adds. “I don’t think I’ll ever be there, because I just keep wanting to get better and better.”

Bisons manager Bobby Meacham had the chance to observe Biggio during a nearly two-month stint in triple-A at the outset of this season. He says all the things he’d heard checked out: Biggio’s preparation was impeccable; he was selfless, willing to play different positions in the field; he was locked in on every pitch; he would run out ground balls and give a full nine innings of effort; he was always seeking improvement. Add it all up and Biggio was the type of player who raised expectations for teammates.

“I don’t think you can make a guy into a leader,” Meacham says. “You’re a leader if someone is following you. If you look behind you and nobody is doing what you’re doing, then it’s a problem — you’re not a leader. You just try to do your job really well and then you raise the bar. Now, the guys behind you have a choice: They can rise too, or they can just fall by the wayside.

“I think him being himself — his preparation and his planning — people watch that and see how confident that makes him, how good that makes him, and then you just go, ‘Man, okay.’”

EXPECT NOTHING LESS
Unafraid to hold teammates accountable, Biggio expects the same treatment. "If I was doing something wrong," he says. "I would want someone to tell me."

Biggio is playing catch with Guerrero Jr. along the third-base line hours before a late-July game at Rogers Centre. Guerrero flips a ball that bounces well in front of Biggio, who responds with a stern “you can do better than that”-type message. Biggio then places a perfect throw back to Guerrero, who now wears a sheepish grin. His next throw to Biggio is chest high, with some zip on it.

Several members of the organization have been impressed with the fact Biggio doesn’t shy away from calling out teammates if the need arises. When asked about his philosophy on the subject, Biggio says it’s just a matter of accountability. “When someone does that to another player, it’s not always a negative thing,” he says. “It’s them trying to help. It’s like, ‘Hey, you can do this better and be better for yourself and for our team.’ If I was doing something wrong, I would want someone to come up and approach me and tell me … Allowing yourself to be held accountable is one of the hardest things to do in this game and as a teammate.”

Being a leader isn’t something Biggio thinks about all that much in the day-to-day. It’s more a natural result of the relationships he’s built with his teammates, which he truly values. He makes an effort to develop a connection with everyone on the roster, believing that the closer teammates become, the better the team will ultimately play.

Of course, actions are just as important as words. Advanced stats peg Biggio as a slightly below league-average hitter through his first three months in MLB and his slash line is not exactly flattering. In short, there are offensive improvements that need to be made. However, his strike-zone judgement has been astonishing: Only six players in baseball own a better walk rate since his arrival in the majors on May 24 and he’s swung at a lower percentage of pitches outside the zone than anyone else.

Smoak, 32, has seen his share of leaders over his decade in the majors. He’ll be a free agent this off-season, but when he envisions the future of the Blue Jays clubhouse, whether he’s a part of it or not, the first baseman believes Biggio will stand as a central pillar. “He understands how to do that,” says Smoak. “He’s mature. He grew up around the game. He’s a guy who went to college and played there. A guy that grinded through the minor leagues and continued to just get better and better. He’s kind of done it all.

“Guys like that can definitely help lead once they get to the big leagues.”



Designed and edited by Evan Rosser.

Photo Credits

Juan DeLeon/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images; Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images; Rob Tringali/SportsChrome/Getty Images; James Nielsen/AFP/Getty Images; Juan DeLeon/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images.