This is a critical season for the New York Mets when it comes to their affiliation with the Buffalo Bisons. It's the fourth year since the Amazins hit town and there's been no sniff of the playoffs and only one winning season.
The teams' Player Development Contract is up after this season and there will be plenty of pressure on the Bisons to look elsewhere if the 2012 Herd, which opens its season tonight in Pawtucket, flames out again.
The Bisons, who have not made the playoffs since 2005, have big expectations for the 25th anniversary season of Coca-Cola Field and they're not unfounded. The Mets have done a good job stocking the club with veteran free agents -- including the return of 2011 Buffalo MVP Valentino Pascucci -- and have put their two close-to-the-majors pitching prospects (6-foot-4 right-handers Matt Harvey and Jeurys Familia) at the top of the Bisons' rotation.
And to top it off, they've shuffled manager Wally Backman from Double-A Binghamton to Buffalo. Backman, the beloved second baseman from New York's 1986 World Series champions, is the rising star of the organization. You can find plenty of Mets observers who think Buffalo Baseball Hall of Famer Terry Collins is just keeping the manager's chair at Citi Field warm until Backman arrives.
"He's been great all spring," Pascucci said as the Bisons hit town this week. "Guys cling to him, get along with him. He's a player, he's been around and he's never lost that feeling for the game. He's open to talk to any time.
"He wants to win just like everybody else but he has a good time doing it. He's got that fire. He jokes around a little bit but when it comes to the game, he's ready to go."
"The way he manages creates respect but his baseball career creates even more respect," added infielder Josh Satin, who split last year in Binghamton with Backman and in Buffalo. "I was fortunate to be with him last year for three months and I've learned a ton from him."
Backman has an aggressive personality -- look up the YouTube videos from his stint in independent ball with the South Georgia Peanuts -- and promises to field an aggressive team, even though the Bisons won't have a lot of speed-burners.
"I like to force defenses to make mistakes," Backman said. "Even though we don't have the huge amount of team speed, will we go first to third? Absolutely. Will we try to force the opposing outfield to throw us out at certain bases? Absolutely.
"So in that sense, we'll still be aggressive and try to take the extra base. We're not going to sit back and wait for the three-run homer but it will be nice when it comes."
Backman is confident the Bisons will score plenty of runs and should be good defensively up the middle. Bullpen roles need to be finalized. If the rotation holds up behind Harvey and Familia, there's no reason the Herd can't contend in the International League North.
Here's a rundown on the Herd heading into opening day:
Harvey went 13-5 last year between Binghamton and Class A St. Lucie (Fla.) with 156 strikeouts and just 47 walks in 135 2/3 innings. Familia was 5-5 between the two stops, fanning 132 and walking only 43 in 124 innings. Backman said from the day in November when he was promoted here that he wanted them both challenged at Triple-A. He got his wish. Radar guns around the International League will be taking notice.
"I think it's really good for the players," Backman said. "It shows when you perform at the level they performed at last year, they get the reward they're getting now, being that much closer to the big leagues."
"He's helped me so much regarding pitching and the organization and helping me through everything," Harvey said. "Being able to play for him again is something I was really looking forward to."
Harvey and Familia can definitely push each other through the season and that's certainly a good thing.
"It's not like a vocal thing, we don't say anything to each other about it," Harvey said. "If I go out and have a good outing, I know he wants to and vice versa. That's what we strive for, to be better than the previous outing That's how you start a good rotation."
"It's going to be exciting," said Satin, who has played with Familia since 2009. "I've seen him grow a lot over the last three years and I saw Matt throw last year and he's electric and exciting. I don't think I've ever played behind two guys with this much talent and ability to pitch in the big leagues for a long time."
The No. 3 starter will be righty Chris Schwinden, who was 8-8 with the Herd last year and got the team's Warren Spahn Award as the most valuable pitcher before getting a call-up to New York. Free agents Garrett Olson, who has pitched for three big-league clubs, and Jeremy Hefner (9-7, 4.98 at Tucson last year) also will start.
There are plenty of roles to be ferreted out here but Backman has plenty of options. Dylan Owen started here last year and will go in long relief. The same was planned for Josh Stinson, until he was claimed off waivers Wednesday by Milwaukee.
Jeff Stevens, who was here as part of the last Cleveland team in 2008, can go as a setup man. So can lefty Justin Hampson, who had a strong breakthrough here in 2011, and veteran lefty Chuck James, who spent most of last year in Rochester.
The closer might be righty Fernando Cabrera, who was lights-out with a 1.23 ERA here in 2005 on his way up in the Cleveland chain and has 53 saves in Triple-A the last three years.
Veteran free agent signee Omar Quintanilla will man shortstop and Mets prospect Jordany Valdespin, a .280 hitter here in 27 games last season, will be at second. Valdespin played an uneven short here, making spectacular plays and muffing routine ones. But he has good pop, with 17 home runs between Binghamton and Buffalo, and even worked in center field for the Mets this spring.
Pascucci, with 38 homers here the last two years, will see time at first base as well as DH and perhaps the outfield. He had 91 RBIs in 2011 and got his first big-league call-up since 2004 with Montreal. Even at age 33, he's a real bench option for the Mets again if needed.
"I was always waiting for another shot to get back ever since I came back from Japan (in 2007)," Pascucci said. "I had some good years and was wondering if somebody would give me a shot. [Mets GM] Sandy Alderson and "TC" [Collins] and all them made a decision to call me up in September. I had a handful of at-bats and hopefully it carries into this year."
The corners will also be manned by Satin, a consistent .300 hitter at every level, and Zach Lutz. Satin hit .317 here in 38 games last year while Lutz battled a slew of injuries to hit .295 in 61 games.
The catchers will be free-agent veterans Rob Johnson, who has spent most of the last three years in the big leagues as a backup with San Diego and Seattle, and Lucas May.
The top prospect the Mets will be watching is center fielder Kirk Nieuwenhuis, who got off to a red-hot start here last year but saw his season cut short after 53 games due to shoulder surgery. He batted .298 and has been given a clean bill of health this spring.
Joining Pascucci as a top power threat in the Buffalo lineup is free agent signee Adam Loewen, a converted pitcher who should be in right field. Loewen was a pitcher in the Baltimore chain from 2003 to 2008 and made 29 starts in the big leagues before converting to the outfield.
Playing for Las Vegas last year in the Toronto chain, Loewen batted .306 with 46 doubles, 17 homers and 85 RBIs before going 6 for 32 in a brief call-up to the Blue Jays.
Free agent signees Vinny Rottino and Matt Tuiasosopo are Triple-A veterans who will provide speed and power, respectively, as well as versatility. Rottino, signed from the Marlins' chain, can also catch.