It’s a staff full of prospects mixed with veterans. There’s power. There’s finesse. There are expectations and guys with something to prove.
But whatever the backstory, the Buffalo Bisons start the 2014 season with a deep and impressive pitching staff.
The Herd opens at 2:05 p.m. Thursday against the Rochester Red Wings at Coca-Cola Field.
“The starting five and the bullpen are just great guys,” starter Sean Nolin said. “Everyone’s putting up some good numbers. If you’re not a flame-thrower, then you’ve got finesse and certain pitches that you get guys out with.”
Kicking it all off on Opening Day will be first-round draft choice Marcus Stroman who gets the coveted first start of the season. But a glance down the roster, both in the starting rotation and the bullpen, shows what first-year Bisons manager Gary Allenson called a versatile staff. It’s exciting, too, for catcher Mike Nickeas, who is playing his sixth year with the Bisons.
“I love our young starting pitchers,” Nickeas said. “I think our starting staff is going to be very good. Our bullpen has got some depth as well. The young guys we have in this organization are starting to get to the level where they’re almost breaking into the big leagues. You guys are going to have a lot of fun watching them.”
The fun starts with Stroman, the No. 2 rated prospect in the Toronto Blue Jays organization. Picked in the first round, and 22nd overall by the Blue Jays out of Duke University in the 2012 MLB June Amateur Draft, he played his first professional season last year with Double-A New Hampshire. There he struck out 129 batters in 111∏ innings.
Then the rotation goes like this:
Ricky Romero continues his comeback trail. An American League All-Star in 2011, Romero saw his pitching unravel at the end of 2012 and he continues to try and find his consistency again.
Kyle Drabek returns to Triple A after working through the Blue Jays minor league system last season recovering from 2012 Tommy John surgery. He was the organization’s No. 1 prospect a few years ago and now feels healthy and ready to continue his progression.
Drabek feels his velocity is fine and he continues to work on his secondary pitches.
“Velocity to me is not a big deal,” Drabek said. “Guys can throw 100 and still get hit, and guys can throw 80. It’s all about the command of the fastball for me. Velcocity-wise though I think it will be there. … The other pitches I feel like are getting there. It kinda goes back to mechanics and being able to repeat will help each pitch out.”
Sean Nolin is the 10th-rated prospect for the Blue Jays entering his fifth year as pro. He started last season in New Hampshire going 8-3 in 17 starts. He went 1-1 in three starts in Buffalo and made one start in Toronto for his Major League debut. “The secondary stuff has gotten better just in the last couple weeks of spring training,” Nolan said. “I’m changing grips a little bit. Everything is a little bit tighter. Hopefully I’ll be doing the same things on the field. It’s just about executing.”
Liam Hendricks, claimed off waivers in February, made the Minnesota Twins Opening Day Roster in 2012 and 2013 before being optioned to Rochester on April 13. He missed 37 games on the disabled list with right elbow inflammation last year. He won 17 games as a starter for the Red Wings from 2011 to 2013.
The deep bullpen features closer Neil Wagner. In the first two months of the 2013 season, he posted a 0.76 earned run average and was a perfect 16-for-16 in save situations before being promoted to Toronto. Mickey Storey, Chad Jenkins, Marcus Walden, Rob Rasmussen and Ryan Tepera will begin the season working out of the pen.
“If things don’t work out early with a starter, we can’t be afraid to go to the bullpen to stay in the game,” Allenson said. “Those guys give us that ability.”
While the pitching is the highlight of the Herd’s Opening Day roster, run production remains a question mark. There are players on the roster capable of putting up good numbers, but last year the Herd suffered from inconsistent performances and a series of call-ups for injuries. “We have a good bunch of guys. They play the game the right way,” Allenson said. “They get along with each other. They have fun. And let’s face it, when you’re at it for six months with spring training … it becomes a little bit of a grind where it’s almost like punching a clock. If you go out there and have fun while you’re doing it, that makes it a lot easier.”
Injuries for the Blue Jays have already impacted the Bisons as Jonathan Diaz, scheduled to be the Bisons starting shortstop, was called up after Jose Reyes suffered a hamstring injury in the first inning of the first game of the season.
Look for Munenori Kawasaki to get the start at short. The charismatic infielder won fans last year while playing with Toronto. Chris Getz will be at second base. The free agent played 78 games for the Kansas City Royals last season and has 449 big league games with the Royals and the Chicago White Sox.
Dan Johnson should provide some offense. The first baseman/designated hitter will make his Bisons debut after spending the last five years as one of the most consistent power hitters in the International League. He was the MVP of the league in 2010 when he batted .303 with Durham.
Andy LaRoche will return to play third base. He hit 12 home runs and drove in 51 runs for the Herd last year.
Nickeas returns behind the plate along with Jack Murphy, who made his Triple-A debut with the Bisons at the end of last season after spending most of 2013 in New Hampshire.
“I’ve felt very fortunate that since I’ve been a Blue Jay, the catchers seem to be a close-knit fraternity,” said Nickeas in his second year in the Toronto organization. “We share information really well. We talk about our guys all the time. It’ just makes us stronger as a team.”
The most dynamic positional players roam the outfield for the Herd. The group is led by Kevin Pillar, the No. 20 rated prospect who won the Blue Jays’ 2013 Webter Award as the organization’s top minor league player.
Pillar climbed the organizational chart last year, starting in Double-A New Hampshire then joining the Herd for 52 games where he batted .299 and drove in 27 runs. He earned his first big league promotion and played in 36 games for the Blue Jays, batting .206.
Anthony Gose spent time between Buffalo and Toronto last season. He led the team with 64 runs scored and ranked second among IL outfielders with 15 assists, although his .239 batting average was a bit below expectations along with his 121 strikeouts in 393 at-bats with the Herd.
But Allenson saw a confident Gose by the end of spring training. “Gose was on fire at the end of spring training,” Allenson said. “He swung bat really well. I guess that was an issue with him last year, getting on base or hitting for an average, but I think he’s coming into this season with a lot of confidence.”
Veteran Matt Tuiasosopo, who was with the 2012 Bisons before spending last season with the Detroit Tigers, returns to the outfield along with Ricardo Nanita and Brett Carroll.