When Gary Allenson looked over his ball club in Buffalo this week, he noticed a trend and a problem.
“Well, we’ve got some professional hitters from what I see,” Allenson said of his Bisons opening-day roster. “Actually we’ve got too many guys; it’s going to be tough making a lineup every day. … Probably somebody’s not going to be happy from one day to the next there, but rather have that problem than the other way around.”
The Bisons begin their 2016 season in Pawtucket, playing the Red Sox at 7:05 p.m. Thursday and continuing the four-game series in Rhode Island before moving on to Syracuse for three games with the Chiefs starting Monday. The Bisons make their Coca-Cola Field debut against Rochester at 2 p.m. April 14.
The Herd is looking to make the playoffs for the first time since 2005, the longest active drought in the International League.
For his part, outfielder Dalton Pompey thinks the Bisons have a club able to make a postseason push.
“It’s a great group of guys,” Pompey said “It’s a lot of veteran players, guys who have been around. We have a really talented team. I feel like our team can definitely win a lot of games, and I’m not just saying that to say that but I really do believe that. You know we’ve got some guys that have a lot of experience in the big leagues as well. It’s going to be a great season.”
Pompey is one of those players with big-league experience, although his status still tilts toward prospect. The 23-year-old outfielder made the Toronto Blue Jays’ Opening Day roster but spent the majority of the season between Double-A New Hampshire and Triple-A Buffalo. He went back to the Blue Jays for their playoff run, stealing four bases in the postseason. Pompey took time in the winter to reflect on 2015 – the good and bad and the hard lessons learned. And he’s ready to put it into practice in 2016.
“I’m just trying to be the same guy every day whether it’s good results, bad results,” Pompey said. “I want people to show up and maybe not know that I’m 0 for 20 or I could be 10 for 20 but I’m the same guy, no matter what. I think that’s stuff that’s going to help me throughout my career, not even this year but for years to come.
“I think the toughest part is learning the process and really understanding what that means. Showing up every day, doing your work, being consistent with that and staying with your mindset. I think it gets overlooked and guys sometimes stray away from that. But when you can find that consistency in your routine and what you’re going to do, it makes it easier to show up and have positive results.”
Pompey is part of a powerful outfield that also features Domonic Brown, who hit 27 home runs as a National League All-Star with the Philadelphia Phillies in 2013. Darrell Ceciliani led the Blue Jays in spring training with 15 hits and batted .345 in 70 games for Triple-A Las Vegas last season. Junior Lake spent time with both the Chicago Cubs and Baltimore Orioles last year before Toronto claimed him in December.
The infield loses staples Matt Hague (who signed to play in Japan) and Jonathan Diaz (signed a minor-league deal with the New York Yankees), which means defense could be an iffy proposition for the Herd, at least at the start of the season.
“I don’t think we have as much range as we had,” Allenson said about the defense. “That’s up to us to position guys but I think we’re gonna slug the ball.”
The Bisons infield begins the season with solid defense at first as Casey Kotchman has a .9975 fielding percentage in 939 career major-league games. Kotchman hit .290 with seven home runs and drove in 44 runs for Triple-A Omaha in 2015. At third, Matt Dominguez hit 42 home runs with the Houston Astros from 2012-14.
Andy Burns will get more time in the middle of the infield after finishing sixth in the International League in hits (140) and 10th in on-base percentage (.351) for the Herd. First baseman Jesus Montero, a one-time Yankees catching prospect, was an All-Star in the Pacific Coast League last year, batting .355 with Tacoma.
Rounding out the infield are Alexi Casilla (515 games with the Minnesota Twins over seven seasons), David Adams (.372 career on-base percentage in eight minor-league seasons), and Jiovanni Mier (97 hits and a .258 batting average for Double-A Corpus Christi).
The Herd’s starting rotation begins with Drew Hutchison, who won 13 games with the Blue Jays last season. Lefty Scott Diamond, who spent last season with Durham, takes the second turn followed by the returning Scott Copeland (2.95 earned run average in 21 games with the Herd last year) and Wade LeBlanc (10 games with Triple-A Salt Lake two seasons ago before spending last year in Japan).
The bullpen features returnees Ryan Tepera, Ben Rowan and Chad Jenkins. Tepera had a 1.06 ERA in 21 games for the Herd last year and has the fourth-best winning percentage (.818) in Coca-Cola Field history. Rowan pitched scoreless baseball in 13 of his 14 outings for the Bisons in 2015 while Jenkins has worked as a starter and reliever for the Bisons over the last three years. He has received 10 promotions to Toronto since 2013.
New to the staff this year is David Aardsma, who saved 69 games for Seattle from 2009-10. Pat Venditte, who pitches both righty and lefty, made his major-league debut with Oakland last year. Chad Girodo has a 1.45 ERA in 45 minor league games in 2015 while Dustin Antolin makes his Triple-A debut after being named a 2014 Eastern League All-Star with New Hampshire. Pat McCoy comes to the Herd after pitching in 27 games for the Norfolk Tides.
Catching that staff will be Humberto Quintero and Tony Sanchez. Quintero threw out 33 percent of base stealers in his 12-year major-league career while Sanchez spent the last four seasons between Pittsburgh and Indianapolis, earning Triple-A All-Star Game MVP honors in 2014.