The major-league roster is far from set and a lot could be determined at this week's Winter Meetings but the Toronto Blue Jays have a seminal year coming up in the minor leagues as well. The Jays could be in for a serious transition season if they lose Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista to free agency. Trades in recent years have sapped the upper levels of their system but many good prospects could finally be ready for Buffalo in 2017.
The most intriguing member of the '17 Bisons, however, might not even start the season here. Cuban outfielder Lourdes Gurriel, signed last month to a seven-year, $22-million contract, seems ticketed for Double-A New Hampshire unless he can blow the Blue Jays away in spring training. The slow transition seems like the right play for a long-term investment.
"We're really excited to get a player of this magnitude into the organization," Charlie Wilson, the Blue Jays' director of minor-league operations, told The News here last week while in town for Bobby Meacham's introduction as manager of the Bisons. "There's been no decision made on where he'll start. He's going to come to spring training, get his feet wet with us and have a full opportunity to compete for a job no matter what level it will be."
Even Gurriel's position is up in the air at this point. He could play shortstop or perhaps left field. His older brother, Yulieski Gurriel, batted .262 in 36 games for the Astros last season after coming from Cuba but he is already 32 years old. You get conflicting reports based on who you talk to over which brother is better at a similar point in their careers. Still, the Blue Jays are thrilled to add a 23-year-old in their system who could impact things in Buffalo this year.
Gurriel is heading for the team's spring complex in Dunedin, Fla., this month to open a six-day strength and conditioning camp. Under new president Mark Shapiro and new General Manager Ross Atkins, the Jays opened a "high-performance department" last season to combine strength and conditioning with nutrition and mental health.
"It will be great to get eyes on him for the first time," Wilson said.
It made sense for the Blue Jays to promote Meacham to follow several of his prospects from New Hampshire to Buffalo. Names like first baseman Rowdy Tellez, shortstop Richard Urena, outfielder Roemon Fields and starting pitcher Connor Greene could all graduate from Double-A to make their Buffalo debuts. Catching prospect Reese McGuire and outfielder Harold Ramirez were acquired from Pittsburgh for Drew Hutchison and spent the end of last season in New Hampshire. Reliever Matt Dermody got the call to the Bisons and Toronto. And highly touted outfielder Anthony Alford remains on the radar even though he hit just .236 last year at Class A Dunedin.
From the free agency standpoint, the Blue Jays again need to fill the Bisons' rotation. They've already re-signed Casey Lawrence and added 35-year-old Jarrett Grube, who has spent most of the last six years in Triple-A and was 9-0 two years ago at Columbus.
"We're very excited at the names we're seeing," Wilson said. "There's a lot of names we're interested in seeing how they develop. We're in great spirits looking forward to spring training from a development standpoint."
It's now been a full year cycle for Wilson working under Shapiro and Atkins along with director of player development Gil Kim.
"I knew Ross from industry meetings but I've learned these are great people and great leaders," Wilson said. "Their ability to think outside the box and their level of forward thinking has been amazing. The high-performance department is new. We're working and collaborating with high performance and player development together, which has been really exciting. We're looking for advantages over our competitors every day."
With the collective bargaining agreement settled, teams can go forward on baseball's annual Winter Meetings, which kick off Monday at the Gaylord Resort in National Harbor, Md., outside Washington, D.C. Had there been no agreement, a lockout would have put a halt on all big-league business.
With no chance for any transactions, the feeling was that the annual baseballpalooza would have only gone on for minor-league teams and the annual job fair for people looking to crack into the industry. (The Bisons annually send a contingent to be part of the International League and minor league meetings and to interview candidates at the job fair).
With Yoenis Cespedes off the table and signed to remain with the Mets, perhaps the biggest domino to fall will be Encarnacion. The hottest rumors have him working a four- or five-year deal to play in Houston. A reunion in Toronto may be unlikely in the wake of the Blue Jays signing Kansas City's Kendry Morales to be a switch-hitting designated hitter. It's hard to imagine Encarnacion being able to serve as a full-time first baseman.
"Two guys that do similar things is less than ideal for a team, and money has been spent,” Atkins said Thursday during a luncheon meeting with the Toronto chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America. “It doesn’t make it impossible, but it certainly made it less likely. We realized that the day we made the move. We talked to Edwin about that as well.”
The Yankees are believed to be interested in Encarnacion but seem to have most of their sights set on a reunion with Cubs closer Aroldis Chapman. The Pirates are well known to be shopping outfielder Andrew McCutchen, who had a big dropoff last season at age 30. And someone will likely pay big money to 47-homer man Mark Trumbo of Baltimore.
Yankees GM Brian Cashman, however, said he has sent signals out to players and agents that he was going to take the weekend to digest the ramifications of the new CBA before initiating any talks. The luxury tax threshhold is moving from $189 million to $195 for next season, progressing to $210 million in 2021 when the deal expires.
"Hopefully we’ll be able to hit the ground running Monday at the latest," Cashman told the New York Post. "But it’s in our best interest to know what we’re dealing with, first and foremost.”
Another player to watch will be to see what kind of deal goes to Bautista, who is turning 36 and coming off his worst season since 2009. Bautista batted .250 with 40 homers and 114 RBIs in 2015, when his playoff bat flip made him a Toronto icon. His numbers in 2016 were just .234-22-69 and he hit only .182 in the postseason. It seems like the Jays are pushing their chips to the table for Cubs outfielder Dexter Fowler, who does not appear like he's returning to Wrigley Field.
Manager chit chat
An annual rite of the meetings will be press conferences held by each manager, including the first with the national media in his new role for Arizona skipper and Buffalo Baseball Hall of Famer Torey Lovullo.
Offseason hirings have created a scenario where all four managers in the NL West have Bisons connections. NL Manager of the Year Dave Roberts (Los Angeles) is a Hall of Famer like Lovullo and San Diego's Andy Green played here in 2009 in the first year of the Mets affiliation. New Colorado skipper Bud Black was the pitching coach of the 1998 International League champions here and went on to win a World Series with the 2002 Anaheim Angels before moving on to manage in San Diego from 2007-2015.
Indians manager Terry Francona will not attend after having hip replacement surgery in the wake of Game Seven of the World Series. After being named AL Manager of the Year, Francona joked in a conference call with reporters last month that "I've had both knees done and now my right hip, so if I can get my left one done, then I'll be fully bionic."
Bisons coaching connections
---One of the most popular Bisons of the modern era will be an International League North Division foe of the Herd next season as the Philadelphia Phillies have promoted former Herd catcher Dusty Wathan to manager of the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs. Wathan played in Buffalo from 2003-2005 and his best remembered for a his bases-clearing double in the clinching game of the 2004 IL finals against Richmond and a three-homer game in 2005 against Toledo. He has managed Double-A Reading the last five years.
Wathan has been named the Eastern League manager of the year each of the last two seasons and led Reading to a league-best 89-52 record in 2016. He also managed at three rungs of Class A ball for the Phillies since retiring as a player in 2007 and has a record of 631-565.
---Ex-Buffalo manager Jeff Datz has been hired as the roving catching instuctor for the Atlanta Braves after serving as a scout for the Yankees last season. Datz was a coach for Cleveland, Baltimore and Seattle from 2002-2013 but battled squamous-cell cancer on his neck in 2013 while with the Mariners and transitioned to a scouting role. Datz led the Bisons to the 1998 International League championship and a berth in the inaugural Triple-A World Series. He also managed Buffalo to a 72-72 record in 1999.
---Former Buffalo catcher Tim Laker (2001-02, 06) has been named assistant hitting coach of the Arizona Diamondbacks, the first coaching hire made my Lovullo. Laker's final season in Buffalo was Lovullo's first as the Herd manager.
---Former Bisons infielder Stubby Clapp, a long-time hero of Canadian national teams, won't be serving as the Herd's hitting coach in 2017 and will instead manage at Triple-A Memphis in the Cardinals chain. Clapp is perhaps the most popular player in the history of the Memphis franchise, which dates to 1998. He had been with the Blue Jays at Double-A New Hampshire and his wife tweeted congratulations last month about a promotion to the Bisons that the Jays had yet to announce.
Proud to say this corner has been added to the list of roughly 500 voters for the 2017 class of the Hall of Fame. Votes are awarded to those who have been members of the BBWAA for 10 seasons and must be postmarked by Dec. 31. The major first-time candidates this year are Pudge Rodriguez, Vladimir Guerrero and Manny Ramirez, while major attention is being paid in early media predictions to the candidacy of former outfielder Tim Raines, who is on his final year on the ballot. And the steroid question remains heavy, especially when considering the likes of Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens.
There will be full transparency when this ballot is cast. It will be published on Twitter and through the BBWAA website. And we are planning a full story in The News sports section sometime around Christmas discussing the votes. You are limited to voting for 10 candidates. Stay tuned.