The Buffalo Bisons missed the playoffs, again, but glimmers of talent emerged in 2017 - The Buffalo News

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The Buffalo Bisons missed the playoffs, again, but glimmers of talent emerged in 2017

In the end, it was another year without postseason baseball in Buffalo. The last time the Bisons made the playoffs was 2005, a frustrating fact around Coca-Cola Field and something the organization hoped would change when Buffalo extended its affiliation agreement with the Toronto Blue Jays.

Such is the life of a Triple-A affiliate in service of the Major League club. The Blue Jays are still rebuilding their roster of prospects and this season Toronto had injury issues, particularly among the pitching staff, that left the Bisons with thin ranks.

All that combined in June when the Bisons promising start spiraled downward.

On June 4, the Herd was eight games over .500 (31-23) and had a piece of the International League North Division lead, but then went  just 9-35 over the next six weeks, including a 10-game losing streak, to fall more than 20 games out of first place.

When the season closed on Monday with a 3-2 win in Syracuse, the Bisons ended 2017 with a 65-76 record, 21 games back of IL North division winner Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and 14.5 games back of Lehigh Valley in the Wild Card standings.

Perhaps that hot start to the season was a bit of overachieving for a group that was missing high-end baseball talent but big on hard work.

"I saw it from the beginning because to be honest with you this isn't an ultra-talented team. It never was," Bisons manager Bobby Meacham said. "We looked at the roster opening day and you kinda go, well we can get some guys to play hard. Then we started winning. You tip your hat those guys who aren't as talented as the teams we were facing and yet they were able to have some success."

After a dismal June and July, which included 70 player moves, the Herd had a strong August. Buffalo went 18-12 in the last full month of the season. While it was too little too late in terms of playoffs, it was an encouraging sign as many players rebounded with strong finishes instead of packing it in and waiting until spring.

"The ups and downs of the roster and all that, obviously challenges their character but you've seen how they've done toward the end," Meacham said. "A couple months were really tough but I don't know, there's just something about them. They stuck with it. You've seen guys who struggled the last month start to come out of it the last week. That just proves what character they have and how hard they work and they're not going to quit."

Welcome back to Buffalo: Bobby Meacham took his first turn at managing the Bisons in 2017 and his second turn at the Triple-A level. Meacham played for the Herd in 1989, back when Buffalo was an affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates. It was Meacham's second stint at Triple A managing. His first came for one season, 1995, with the Calgary Cannons of the Pacific Coast League. Now in his fifth season with the Blue Jays organization, Meacham has watched the talent grow up.

"This is my favorite group I've managed in five years because they get it," Meacham said. "I think they really do get it. They realize the hard work they put in needs to overflow into the game and hopefully that turns into good results. I think they get the fact that they're this close to being good and this close to be really bad. That's a real good quality to have in baseball because then you come out every day with that in mind, then you don't take it for granted.

"There are a few who don't do that but for the most part this group really realizes that. They're more mature."

Home Sweet Home: The Bisons did notch their first winning season at home since 2013 going 36-35. That record is pretty impressive considering it includes a 3-20 stretch at Coca-Cola Field.

Roster moves: The final stat tally had 199 player moves in 2017 with 68 players having appeared in a game for the Buffalo Bisons. During the losing stretch of June and July, there 70 player moves. Buffalo also hosted 11 Major League Rehab assignments.

The emergence of Leblebijian: Infielder Jason Leblebijian made his Triple-A debut and was one of the surprises of the first half of the season. He was the Bisons lone representative on the IL All-Star Team for the Triple-A All-Star Game in July. Leblebijian was hitting .276 before the break with 43 RBIs. He skidded, along with the rest of the team, in July, hitting just .163, but he finished strong, batting .385 over the last 10 games.

Leblebijian was voted by his teammates as the Bisons most inspirational player this year. Playing at five different positions on the infield and starting in every spot of the lineup except leadoff, Leblebijian showed not only his versatility but his willingness to help the club. Not a guy who got a look by the Blue Jays, he could be a cornerstone for the Bisons and maintain quality depth in the Toronto organization.

The ups and downs of Tellez:  The highest ranked Blue Jays prospect to start the season in Buffalo, Rowdy Tellez blasted two home runs in his first Triple-A game. But it was a roller coaster season in the results column for Tellez who hit .169 in June. The first baseman had a strong August, batting .311 and driving in 14 runs. The way he ended his season is a positive sign. The 22-year old, who also dealt with his mother's battle with melanoma earlier this summer, continues to have potential, room for growth, and time to develop.

Bigger than baseball: Rowdy Tellez shares his family journey through skin cancer

The biggest surprises: Who the heck is Roemon Fields? That was the question when the outfielder arrived in Buffalo April 29. Fields started the season as the fourth outfielder in Double-A New Hampshire and ended up the Most Valuable Player for the Bisons while setting a franchise record for most stolen bases in a season with 43.

In many ways, Fields wasn't supposed to be here. Baseball was supposed to be a means to an end, a way to get an education first at community college then at Bethany College, a small NAIA school in Kansas.

He had a job lined up with the U.S. Postal Service and was ready to go about a non-baseball life when his college coach convinced him to play in a tournament. Scouts from the Blue Jays saw him, liked him, and signed him. He's now on the cusp of Major League Baseball.

Roemon Fields could have been a mailman. Instead he's living the baseball dream.

Keep an eye on: Christian Lopes. The infielder hit a career- high .295 last season in Double-A New Hampshire. Lopes suffered an ankle injury in June that kept him out of playing for a month. At the time, Meacham thought they had lost Lopes for the season, a blow that certainly helped escalate the already mounting losses in the standings for the Bisons. At the time of his injury, Lopes was hitting .283 and his on-base percentage of .769 was a key reason he was usually batting first in the lineup. His speed on the bases helped the Herd manufacture runs early in the season. Lopes returned to the Herd August, again showing an ability to get on base and score runs – 17 runs over 24 games in the last full month of the season.

Also keep an eye on: Danny Jansen. The catcher climbed the minor league ladder this season, starting in Class-A Dunedin then working his way up to Double-A New Hampshire. He made his Triple-A debut on Aug. 4 and made the most of his late-season opportunity. Jansen batted .328 over 21 games, driving in 10 runs with eight extra-base hits, including three home runs.

As the pitching staff turns: As the Toronto Blue Jays pitching staff dealt with injuries, the Bisons pitching staff dealt with ever-shifting roles. The Herd's pitching situation can be summed up in the organization's choice for Most Valuable Pitcher, Murphy Smith. He started his Bisons season earning his first three career Triple-A saves in his first 11 appearances with the team. He then transitioned to longer relief outings. Oh, and then he was a starter, making eight starts. Smith is just the third reliever to win the team's most valuable pitcher award.

While there were good outings and some solid performances, the Bisons pitching staff didn't have a big "wow" factor. That is until Carlos Ramirez showed up in a Buffalo uniform on Aug. 9. The reliever did not allow an earned run over 37 2/3 innings between Double-A and the Bisons this season. In his seven outings with the Herd, he did not allow a run over 14 innings, allowing just six hits and issuing just three walks with 16 strike outs. In two outings for Toronto in his first Major League call-up, Ramirez still had yet to give up an earned run.

Celery wins: Perhaps the biggest story of 2017 at Coca-Cola Field was Celery breaking an 0-449 streak in the WCC Race. Celery goes into retirement with a win in the race on Aug. 30 for an overall record of 1-449. Celery is scheduled to return to the ballpark next year but will not participate in the WCC Race.

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